Friday, December 26, 2008

Barack Obama ... and Harry Truman??

I'm reading a lot of U.S. history these days, mostly because I listen to audiobooks while exercising and history provides some of the more interesting available offerings. Recently I finished Robert Dallek's Harry S. Truman.

This is not a major biography -- rather it is a sort of once-over-a-life-lightly, close to the level of the Random House Landmark Books of my childhood. That's not exactly a slam; these titles provided a grounding in the basics without which it is hard to make anything of the past. Dallek's Truman does just that - provides a grounding in the events of a period which we forget to our peril.

So when I noticed this in Salon this morning, Dallek helped me fill in some context:

In a new USA TODAY/Gallup poll, a sample of 1,008 Americans picked president-elect Barack Obama as the man they admire most. No president-elect has topped the poll since war hero Dwight Eisenhower 56 years ago.

Another way of stating that would be that when Harry S. Truman left office in 1952, he had disapproval ratings that only George W. Bush has managed to equal since. National relief combined with enthusiasm for a replacement was the overwhelming sentiment.

Both Truman and Bush left office owning the blame for wars that the U.S public had decided were hopeless sinkholes devoid of purpose. I am hopeful that the U.S. really will exit Iraq, mostly because the Iraqis want us out and schemes to stay will become unsustainable. But there's that other war, the one both the Bush administration and most others took their eyes off: Afghanistan.

As the new guy comes in, the media have begun to focus on the forgotten war and the news is ugly. Here's an L.A. Times sample. The Karzai government that Western invaders helped launch is corrupt, feeble, illegitimate in Afghan eyes because it cannot provide security. NATO allies who got stuck with providing troops by the Bush crew want no more of it. U.S. air raids kill civilians repeatedly. And the Taliban is doing what the invaders can't do; controlling the roads and countryside. That is, Afghanistan is just as FUBAR as Iraq, the only difference being that most people in the U.S. haven't had their eyes on that ball.

So why has Barack Obama persisted in promising that he'll fix the Afghan war? He's clearly smart enough to recognize a shitpile when he sees one. In part, there are some real U.S. interests in that part of the world. It would be gratifying to catch or kill Osama Bin Laden and buddies. Pakistan and India are nuclear powers -- encouraging them not to drift into a war of annihilation over Kashmir is a no-brainer.

But it seems likely that a major impetus for Obama to focus on "winning" in Afghanistan has been to prove that Democrats can be tough guys. Ever since Truman, one of the basic Republican memes has been that Democrats flunk the warrior test. On Truman's watch, Democrats "lost China" to the Commies, Democrats "ceded" Eastern Europe to Stalin, Democrats saw the Soviet Union break the Western nuclear monopoly, and Democrats kept competent liberals in government jobs rather than hounding them out as Communists.

For Obama to really change paradigms in U.S. politics, he needs to find a way to wind down the Afghan war without setting lose the meme of Democratic weakness so firmly cemented in place since Truman. "Winning in Afghanistan" -- whatever that means -- looks to be out of reach. Can we find a way to live with, and moderate, tensions we cannot dominate alongside other emerging powers? The single-superpower empire is untenable; can Obama lead the country into a different paradigm?

If not, those approval ratings are not likely to hold up.

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