Two issues in national politics determine the fate of presidencies: the state of the national economy and the status of overseas wars. Thus, although media attention presently centers on President Obama's scheduled speech next week to the Congress regarding his endangered health-care initiative, his administration's future — and that of congressional candidates, in both parties, running in 2010 elections — will depend far more greatly on the economic and foreign-policy fundamentals.
First, a brief word about the health-care issue. Obama, quite late in the game, seems to have realized that he can no longer remain a spectator in the formulation of a final health-reform plan, leaving it to Democratic congressional chairs to shape. He is reported to be preparing a definitive statement for his congressional appearance in which he will spell out exactly those provisions he wants enacted in 2009.
Turmoil will follow. Congressional Democrats, in particular, will be enraged if Obama drops the so-called "public option," which would create a public health-insurance plan to compete with private plans. But, in the end, some kind of legislation can be passed this year labeled "health-care reform." It probably will involve marginal insurance-market changes.
Now to the Big Two issues.
Despite the recent upward surge in the Dow index, the outlook for financial and economic recovery remains cloudy. Some indices point upward. But medium-sized and small banks keep going under, including in this region — not because of exotic derivatives but because bread-and-butter construction and business loans have gone bad in regions hard hit by the recession.
Meantime, public debt keeps mounting as a result of the financial and auto-industry bailouts, the stimulus package, and the cost of continuing interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Federal Reserve, not wanting to quash recovery, will continue its present easy monetary policy. But, down the road, the accumulating debt will lead to inflation and the Fed will have to tighten.
The consensus view among economists, which seems the correct one at this point, is that financial/economic recovery will come gradually over the remainder of this year and in 2010. Unemployment rates will remain high, however, and probably not begin to come noticeably down until late next year (when, coincidentally, off-year elections will be held). Fed tightening is unlikely to take place until sometime in 2011.
Now, about those offshore wars. Former University of Washington President Bill Gerberding circulated to friends last week a memorandum questioning whether the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was beginning to resemble that in Vietnam. The Seattle Times, living on the financial edge, decided to spend money to send reporter Hal Bernton to Afghanistan for two months to give local readers first-hand coverage of the war there. These are local expressions of growing national concern about Afghanistan.
A broad national poll at the beginning of this week showed that most Democrats already have turned against the Afghanistan commitment, which Obama has said was necessary, while independent voters are trending that way. Only Republicans continue to give strong majority support to the U.S. effort there. (This creates an irony. Obama draws Democrats-only support for his health-reform legislation, while he draws mainly GOP support for his commitment to Afghanistan.) Even while national media coverage focuses on health-care reform and the economy, Afghanistan coverage is beginning to equal it — especially in the wake of the disputed and chaotic recent national election there.
Reportedly, a debate is taking place within the Obama administration about Afghanistan policy from this point forward. Vice President Joe Biden is said to be arguing for an exit strategy tied to a deal with the Taliban. At this point, State and Defense remain committed to staying the course toward the creation of a stable Afghanistan in which the Taliban and Al Qaida cannot regain an important foothold. Meantime, ground commanders keep requesting increased troop levels.
As Gerberding's memo pointed out, this is about where we were in Vietnam policy when President Johnson kept increasing U.S. troop levels in response to Pentagon requests for same.
Afghanistan answers are not easy. Can a friendly, stable government be established in a country that has been run historically by warlords and whose economy is largely dependent on the narcotics trade? Can we and NATO allies simultaneously establish security in population centers while chasing Taliban in the mountains — and incurring casualties from hit-and-run Taliban attacks? It would take many more troops than presently stationed in Afghanistan to fulfill both missions.
Recent attempts to establish outposts in hostile territory seem roughly equivalent to the French Foreign Legion's establishment of isolated forts in the Sahara, with periodic forays into the countryside; to France's buildup at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam; or to the U.S. Cavalry's fort strategy against Native American tribes in the 19th-century West. Both Great Britain and the former Soviet Union, attempting to stabilize and control Afghanistan, gave up after concluding that the costs far exceeded any conceivable benefit.
One big problem: When we ended our strategically mistaken venture in Vietnam, there was a Hanoi government prepared to take over from Day One. We have hung on in Iraq until it seemed a viable central government might be in place there. (It still could fail, in which case U.S. troops would come home anyway.) Cynics would say the reach of the Afghan government's control is perhaps 100 yards from the President's residence. How long might it be until a viable government could truly take hold in the country? Two years? Five years? Most likely, never.
A cold-blooded assessment of the situation favors the supposed Biden plan: a deal with the Taliban, hopefully neutralizing Al Qaida, and a gradual U.S. and NATO withdrawal. (NATO countries' patience with the intervention is fading even more rapidly than that in the U.S.). But is that even possible? Why should the Taliban deal with us when, it seems clear, we eventually will tire and withdraw in any case? A return of Taliban control would be dreadful: The continuing demolition of modern institutions, the suppression of women, rigid adherence to fundamentalist religious codes.
The current policy review is likely to lead to this: A more gradual buildup of U.S. forces than commanders are requesting; new emphasis on security in population centers and less on chasing the enemy in the countryside (parallels to a "clear and hold" strategy in Vietnam replacing an earlier "search and destroy" strategy); and feelers toward a bargain with the Taliban.
The real game in the area, of course, is in neighboring Pakistan. Al Qaida has established its foothold there. The country has nuclear weapons. We must do whatever is necessary to bolster the Pak central government and to undertake joint efforts against fundamentalist agitators trying to seize power there. The "loss" of Afghanistan would be demoralizing. The "loss" of Pakistan is not an option.
Not a happy time for President Obama or for the citizens of this country. Our financial system remains in intensive care and the real economy is only gradually coming back. The President's principal domestic initiatives, health-care and energy reform, are at dead stop in the Congress, although a health care (or "insurance reform") bill still can be passed. There are only difficult options and answers where American troops are being killed and wounded.
Welcome to the 21st century.