Intellectual Honesty is Key on Obama's Afghanistan Troops Surge

New politics is taking hold at home and abroad.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

It seems to me that the leaders of a great free nation, in the conduct of foreign policy and other vital business, need to show a modicum of intellectual honesty and consistency.

Maybe I am naive.

Yes, I recognize that there are times when political coalitions form and break and form anew, and national parties adjust their philosophies to reflect their new makeup. Witness the movement of African-Americans from the party of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt to the party of Franklin Roosevelt and LBJ.

We see this happening, on a lesser scale, now. The Democrats, for example, appear to have inherited the care and feeding of Wall Street from the Republicans. And the Republicans are now corralling old folks, once a reliable Democratic demographic.

Didn't the whole Clinton-Gingrich shut-down-the-government thing revolve around Republican attempts to cut Medicare? Didn't the GOP used to lead the fight for responsible entitlement reform? These days, we've got GOP members of Congress attacking the Democratic healthcare plan because it dares to call for reductions in Medicare spending.

We can't cut grandma's check! Mall-walking is important! Mammograms and MRIs for all!

Some of this is opportunism. The Democrats got tired of being outspent by Republicans every two years, and started wooing Goldman Sachs. The Republicans—representing the insurance industry, small business, and other interests—are looking for any kind of leverage to stop the healthcare bill and are glad to pander to and frighten the elderly, as the Democrats used to do.

It is reassuring, then, to see how the sides are divvying up on President Obama's plan for Afghanistan. Conservatives like George Will have joined liberals like Rep. Jim McGovern (a Massachusetts Democrat) in opposing our involvement, while Obama is receiving the support of neoconservatives.

Check out Danielle Pletka in the Christian Science Monitor, or Robert Kagan in today's Washington Post—two fine displays of intellectual honesty from conservative scholars who believe that the American national interest is being served by Obama's Afghan surge, just as they thought that President Bush's surge in Iraq was the right thing to do.

George Will is right to warn us. Empires have crumbled on the plains of Afghanistan, when political leaders in capital cities half a world away accepted the advice of can-do generals who just could not believe that filthy tribesmen would defeat their splendid armies. We are economically stretched, and venturing into real danger here. Most of all, we owe it to the men and women who will fight this war to look at this one honestly.

So, good for Kagan and Pletka. And let's hear it for Will and McGovern too. I can't tell you whether Obama is doing the right thing—my expertise is history, not counterinsurgency.

I can tell you about Napoleon in Spain, or how King George lost the colonies, or LBJ and Vietnam, or how the Soviet Union met defeat in Charlie Wilson's war. These lessons make me cautious. But most of all they persuade me that rigorous thinking is essential on this one. It is a time for patriots to put aside party.

The last thing we need in this debate is the usual beltway calculus: "What's in it for me?"

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