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.
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.
Back Where He Started
President Obama has come full circle and has now returned to where he started. Though he had initially wanted to end the war in Afghanistan, he yielded to pressure from the military brass. A year and a half ago, he devised a strategy involving two commitments: one to add 30,000 more troops, and another to withdraw them by July 2011. One day, historians will argue over whether Obama truly believed that the war could be turned around -- or whether he was just looking for a way out of a sticky situation.
After having improved conditions in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus was sent to Afghanistan to see if he could succeed in doing so there, as well, as the head of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But instead of solving the Afghanistan problem, Petraeus was worn out by it. Not surprisingly, he opposed troop reductions, and he also made sure that a wider audience knew about his objections.
Petraeus will be one of the first to leave Afghanistan when he returns to Washington to assume a new position as director of the CIA. From Obama's perspective, the transfer is necessary: Petraeus is a general for war, not for withdrawals.
A Party Divided
The president can make a clean break with Afghanistan for one simple reason: The death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden has given Americans a certain sense of satisfaction and dispelled suspicions that Obama is too soft for the job.
The Democrats, traditionally more skeptical of war, are of course pleased with Obama's decision -- and would even be happier with a swifter withdrawal. The Republicans, for their part, now find themselves embroiled in an internal dispute over what their stance on Afghanistan should be and on the course America should take.
The hawks are led by 74-year-old Senator John McCain, the war hero and Vietnam veteran who lost the last presidential election to Obama. McCain is currently back preaching his message on the airwaves and television. "For us to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the Taliban and radical Islamic extremists, I think, would be repeating mistakes we made before," he recently told "This Week" anchor Christiane Amanpour. As he sees it, it is critical "to stay the course."
These words were not only directed at Obama but -- perhaps even more so -- at McCain's own party. When discussing how some Republican presidential candidates want to expedite the troop withdrawal, he said: "This is isolationism. There's always been an isolationist strain in the Republican Party … But now it seems to have moved more center stage, so to speak."
Still, although McCain speaks of a center, the Republicans' primary problem is that the party has neither a center nor any particularly notable politicians. All it has are presidential candidates like Mitt Romney, for whom foreign policy is always subsumed by populist domestic considerations. "It's time for to us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can," he said. "Only the Afghans can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban." In commenting on Afghanistan, Newt Gingrich, the most flamboyant personality among the Republican candidates, succinctly said: "The price tag is always a factor." And Ron Paul, the darling of the Tea Party movement, has been advocating an immediate halt to American military activities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
In these statements, it's hard to distinguish between conviction and opportunism. Polls indicate that 55 percent of Republican voters believe that America "should pay less attention to international problems and focus on problems at home." The pollsters attribute this shift in the conservative camp, which voted George W. Bush into office twice, to the "recession effect." In other words, as they see it, isolationism is a consequence of the economic crisis.
The Tea Party itself -- the deeply conservative grassroots movement that exerts a great deal of influence on the Republicans -- could also be characterized as a recession effect. Although it is anything but unified, the Tea Party movement does espouse one fundamental belief: that America comes first -- and by a very large margin.
In fact, American foreign policy has always been divided into two camps: that of the isolationists, who wanted to avoid picking fights with the rest of the world, and that of the internationalists, who wanted to establish America's position abroad.
Obama is by no means an isolationist -- rather he is a smooth operator. But with America stuck in crisis, waging two wars at once is a luxury it cannot afford.
The president's message was that his country would have to draw painful lessons from its longest war. The process has already begun.