Open-ended skepticism

OPEN-ENDED SKEPTICISM…. I went into last night’s presidential speech on U.S. policy in Afghanistan feeling skeptical. I came out of last night’s presidential speech on U.S. policy in Afghanistan feeling skeptical. That’s probably not a good sign about the effectiveness of the presentation.

It’s not that I’m closed to persuasion on the matter. It’s just that this seemingly-impossible situation raises more questions than one speech could possibly answer. After hearing the pitch on the new strategy, I hoped to have more confidence about the future of the conflict.

I don’t know what the 30,000 additional troops are going to do when they get to Afghanistan. I don’t know what our new objectives are. I don’t know how U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July 2011 — just a year after additional troops arrive — or what can reasonably be accomplished over the preceding 12 months. I don’t know how we’ll pay for the escalation. I don’t know if we’ll meet benchmarks, or if the benchmarks actually exist. I don’t know how the administration can pressure the Afghan government, or how it will respond. I don’t know if the Karzai government can be trusted, or whether it will ever have the confidence of the Afghan people.

Other than that, the whole situation is as clear as day.

I should note that this is meant more as concern than condemnation. After hearing the speech, there’s ample room for skepticism, but there are several elements I feel fairly confident about. When President Obama said (twice) that he doesn’t take his decision “lightly,” I believe him — the policy isn’t shaped by some neocon fantasy; it’s clearly the result of a deliberate, contemplative analysis. With so much on the line, we have a White House that relies on more than “gut” instincts and Weekly Standard editorials.

I also know that the president’s foreign policy and national security decisions have consistently been sound and based on prudent judgment. The U.S. policy in Afghanistan has been adrift for … what is it now … seven years? The president is working to bring the future into focus, even if the image remains blurry. If his track record is any indication, he’s earned at least a little benefit of the doubt.

Obama, presented with an unsolvable and deadly puzzle has been left with options ranging from discouraging to disastrous. For all of our sakes, here’s hoping he chose wisely.