Embracing Realism Obama Turns to Rebuilding America

Roads for Kentucky instead of Kabul: With the US still deep in the economic doldrums, President Barack Obama has begun to shift priorities away from expensive involvement in foreign wars and toward development back home.

US President Barack Obama has shifted his focus from idealism to realism.

US President Barack Obama has shifted his focus from idealism to realism.


US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has no trouble admitting he's tired of the job he started in late 2006. He helped bring American troops home from Iraq. And though he might feel it's happening too quickly, he also approves the plan to gradually bring US soldiers home from Afghanistan. He has served two masters who couldn't be more different, former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama, and yet his reputation remains not only intact, but good. And though he is 67, the job still hasn't worn him out.

So why is he calling it quits? "To tell you the truth," he said in a recent interview with Newsweek, "that's one of the many reasons it's time for me to retire, because frankly I can't imagine being part of a nation, part of a government … that's being forced to dramatically scale back our engagement with the rest of the world."

Gates is retiring on a melancholy note because he believes in his country's historic mandate to make the world a better place. As he sees it, the same thing that happened in Vietnam is now happening in Afghanistan. "We came to the right strategy and the right resources very late in the game," he said. He doesn't, however, say whether he thinks it is now too late for Afghanistan -- or whether the mission could have succeeded at all.

Expensive Dreams

A majority of Americans shares the outgoing defense secretary's ambivalence about Afghanistan. They believe that, in the wake of 9/11, toppling the Taliban regime and hunting down al-Qaida was the right thing to do. Of course, it was nice to imagine that Afghanistan, a poor country that had disintegrated into tribalism and was in the grip of its warlords, could somehow blossom. But now the war is in its 10th year and is costing $2 billion (€1.4 billion) a week, and the United States is adjusting its priorities to conform with the widely held view that if Washington is to be involved in any reconstruction effort, it ought to be at home in America, where it is urgently needed.

The United States remains mired in an economic crisis. The country that has managed to reinvent itself so many times is struggling. Three years after the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers, unemployment remains high; the official rate is 9 percent, but the unofficial one is 16 percent. Growth is crawling along at less than 2 percent, and the country's debt burden is swelling by $4.38 billion a day. Many cities are so broke that roads and bridges are in disrepair, and some areas of America already resemble a Third World country.

A decline of such proportions is rare in American history. But the superpower has bitten off more than it can chew -- and it's now suffering the consequences.

Shifting the Focus to Home

This change of mood in the country has now reached Washington and the political parties. Astonishing things are suddenly happening. Gone are the days of Democrats and Republicans facing off with merciless aggression.

Indeed, the two parties are in surprising agreement over Afghanistan and the need to set new priorities. Although a bill calling for the rapid withdrawal of troops recently failed in the House of Representatives, it only did so by a slim margin. Soon thereafter, a bipartisan group of 27 senators wrote a letter to the president in which they called for a swifter withdrawal and a cleaner break.

The tide has turned. Some of the seemingly wiser Republicans hoping to run against the president in 2012 are already outdoing each other in their demands to scale down the superpower's involvement in far-flung parts of the world. In fact, Iraq and Afghanistan have now divided the Republican Party over America's role in the world to the same degree as Vietnam did the Democrats several decades ago.

This division makes it easier for President Obama to initiate the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Last Wednesday, it took him all of 15 minutes to deliver a speech of historic proportions. "The tide of war is receding," he said, before going on to give a sober assessment of why this was so. "America," he said, "it is time to focus on nation building here at home." The new focus will be on building roads in Kentucky instead of Kabul, on constructing bridges in California rather than Kandahar.

Embracing the Facts

The war in Afghanistan has been America's longest ever. It began in the fall of 2001, just weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, and now it is all but over. By September 2012, the 33,000 soldiers that were sent to Afghanistan only 18 months ago will be back home. All remaining troops will be withdrawn in stages by 2014, ending America's military involvement in the country.

The superpower is also scaling back its missionary zeal. "We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place," Obama said in his speech. "We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely. That is the responsibility of the Afghan government, which must step up its ability to protect its people."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- of whom the Obama administration has a low opinion -- responded magnanimously to the speech, calling the announcement a "moment of happiness for Afghanistan" and saying that Obama had made the right decision for both countries. "The Afghan people's trust in the Afghan army and police is growing every day," Karzai said, "and preservation of this land is the job of Afghans."

If this were only true, Afghanistan would be in good shape.


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