By Debra J. Saunders
President Barack Obama was entitled to a victory lap. In August 2007, then-Sen. Obama stuck out his neck when he said that there were terrorists holed up in the mountains of Pakistan and that he was willing to do something about it.
“If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and (Pakistani) President (Pervez) Musharraf will not act, we will,” Obama asserted.
Hillary Clinton, Obama’s rival Democrat at the time, was aghast that he would talk about encroaching on an ally. Later, John McCain, then the Republican candidate for president, scolded Obama for telegraphing his intentions. Both Clinton and McCain had legitimate points about not antagonizing a putative ally, but Obama had a better point about doing what needs to be done to achieve a military goal.
A year ago, Obama made good on his campaign talk. He authorized a mission into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, and it worked. So he earned the right to crow a little.
Last week, the president flew to Kabul to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The details are not known, but every American can hope that the pact will reduce the sacrifices demanded of troops stationed at Bagram Air Field and elsewhere.
As I watched Obama speaking from Kabul Tuesday, I was struck by how much easier it is politically for a president to wage war when the other party isn’t trying to hobble the president’s efforts.
It was not always so. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Obama voiced the then popular belief among the left that President George W. Bush’s decision to target Saddam Hussein in Iraq had presented a distraction that robbed America of a quick and sure turnabout in the Afghanistan theater. “I will end this war in Iraq responsibly,” Obama declared, “and finish the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.”
The fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban, of course, is not finished; that’s not Obama’s fault but a function of an unremitting enemy that melts into the landscape.
The president warned that bloodshed will continue and that it will be ugly. The Pentagon reported in April, “The insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer through assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks and the emplacement of improvised explosive devices.”
The Bush administration had to deal with the same problems in Iraq — while being blamed for terrorists’ misdeeds. In addition, Bush had to navigate around Democrats who impugned not only the morality of a war of choice but also the morality of military tactics and the cost of the war. Obama frequently denounced the $10 billion-per-month cost of the Iraq War.
With Obama in the White House, you don’t hear many demands for the closure of the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. You don’t hear much about the $8 billion monthly cost of the Afghanistan War. You don’t see daily debates on cable television about the use of military drones.
As Clifford D. May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, put it, there was more outrage during the Bush years over the CIA’s waterboarding of three suspected al-Qaida operatives than there is today over the Obama administration’s liberal use of drones against al-Qaida operatives abroad. “Would you rather be waterboarded or have a drone fall on your head?” May asked. “I’d rather be waterboarded.”
Center for Strategic and International Studies analyst Anthony Cordesman summed up the country’s mood when he told The New York Times, “As for American domestic politics, there seems to be a growing, tacit, bipartisan agreement to drift toward an exit strategy without really admitting it.”
Yes, America, there is bipartisanship.
The question, May asks, is whether it means “we’ve learned something” or this tacit agreement is “an expression of a partisan double standard.”
I would like to think that everyone has developed a bit of humility in the past few years. Those in Obamaland discovered that Afghanistan isn’t as easy as they once suggested; the Bushies learned the same lesson earlier in two theaters of war. Liberals could indulge in demands for a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops when a Republican held the White House, but they’ve had to think more cautiously about the consequences of an abrupt withdrawal with a Democrat as commander in chief.
May is not so sure. He doubts that many on the left “who have refrained from criticizing President Obama for such things as the use of drones will extend the same courtesy” to Mitt Romney if he wins.
There is only one way to find out.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com.