woody_zimmerman_118_2007During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama got a lot of mileage out of claiming that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” – echoing a strident theme of the anti-war left through much of the G. W. Bush presidency. Striking a thoughtful, gravely concerned pose, Mr. Obama agreed that we do have dangerous enemies in the Middle East, but he claimed a superior understanding of the situation. Afghanistan, he said, was the right war – the good war, the essential war – the war we must fight and win. When he became president, he declared, we would get out of Iraq and engage in Afghanistan.

This line, of course, sent the far left into spasms of near orgasmic joy. “Out of Iraq” was what they heard – “engage in Afghanistan,” not so much. Or, if they did hear the Afghan part, it seemed remote and unlikely. The main thing about Obama was that he was not Bush. This was great – miraculous, really. They would be rid of the hated warmonger, Bush (and his Machiavellian vice president, Cheney), and have an enlightened, intelligent president who looked good in a suit and didn’t scramble his syntax. (He might possibly be the sexiest man alive.) He would make the mess in Iraq go away and usher in a new era of peace and international brotherhood with the crazed people who wear bed-sheets and run around chopping off the heads of innocent people. Sweet words would set them all to singing “Kum Ba Yah.”

Modern war is much changed from the days when legions of soldiers and horse-drawn supply-wagons slogged along on foot toward distant objectives. Today we have high-speed, heavily armed strike forces that can get round an enemy army with lightning speed and wreak havoc. Smart bombs hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Television-guided miniature drone aircraft can carry an explosive payload on a non-linear path to an obscure target that’s not visible from the weapon’s launch site. Technology has given the modern army a distinct edge in rapid offensive actions. We knocked the Iraqis over in a matter of weeks in 2002. Nothing seemed beyond us then, militarily.

Notwithstanding all this amazing stuff, military occupation today is pretty much what it was in Julius Caesar’s time – i.e., overwhelming numbers of troops placed in-country to intimidate the populace and suppress resistance as part of an occupation plan for bringing national and local life to order as quickly and efficiently as possible. A long, drawn-out period of armed resistance and disruptive violence is not desirable. Pacification wins the sympathy and support of the people and keeps our own troops secure. No one wants additional casualties from a war that has been won.

Unfortunately, our military and political leadership, ca. 2003, either didn’t understand that occupation was not the same problem as defeating a country’s armed forces, or else they felt politically constrained to occupy on a shoestring. Whatever the case, we didn’t place adequate forces in Iraq after the main conquest. This allowed armed resistance to flourish and political opposition in our own country to grow.

By 2006, with American casualties continuing at an unacceptable level and political pressure mounting, President Bush ordered General David Petraeus to revise our occupation strategy for Iraq. This produced the doctrine that became known in political parlance as “The Surge.” It simply increased our forces to a level that could actually pacify the country. Although the Surge was denounced by implacable opponents of the war – mostly Democrats, who claimed there was no chance of winning – it worked as intended and brought the situation in Iraq under control. By the time of Barack Obama’s election, casualties were way down and we were just mopping up. The war – mirabile dictu – was won.

This left the board clear for a cleanup of the situation in Afghanistan, just as Mr. Obama had wanted. Wonderful! – or perhaps not. Suddenly, the idea of the “good war,” with which Mr. Obama had bashed George W. Bush during the campaign, seemed not nearly as terrific when it came to actually fighting it.

General Stanley McChrystal, a principal author and commander of the Surge in Iraq – now commanding our troops in the Middle East – has asked Mr. Obama for 40,000 more troops to stabilize the Afghan theater of operations. For several months Mr. Obama has delayed his decision on the general’s request, saying he wants to “get it right.” Political opponents and critics have noted, of course, that the president’s insistence on lengthy deliberation stands in marked contrast to his demand for ramming-speed – not necessarily for sound action – on the $800 billion stimulus, cap and trade, and nationalized health care. In those cases, the president preached that catastrophe would ensue if we failed to act quickly.

Obviously Mr. Obama is grappling not only with the military situation in Iraq, but with the political consequences his various options might produce. Granting General McChrystal’s request is likely to enrage his anti-war base, which has inexplicably turned against escalation in Afghanistan. (Go figure.) On the other hand, a failure to authorize the additional troops might prevent pacification of the country and lead to our defeat there. Should that happen, the disaffection of Mr. Obama’s erstwhile “moderate” supporters would certainly follow. Oh for those halcyon days when Afghanistan was the “good war” (in theory) that Democrats could hit George W. over the head with. Things get so darned complicated when you actually have to govern.

Governing is all about choices. Just so, Mr. Obama has had to choose which “war” to prosecute on the domestic front, too. Upon taking office, he acted quickly, signing the huge stimulus package to get the economy “front” under control, so he could move ahead on the key liberal issues of climate change and nationalized health care. Mr. Obama expected – or at least he said he did – that the $800 billion in stimulus funds, the bank bailouts, and the nationalization of General Motors and Chrysler would get the economy moving again and hold unemployment under 8%. Since those actions, early in his term, Mr. Obama has devoted most of his energy to his signature issue, nationalized health care, with a few ruffles and flourishes thrown in on climate-control legislations – a.k.a. cap-and-trade.

Unfortunately, the economy has refused to cooperate with Mr. Obama’s Grand Plan. Instead of arresting below 8%, the unemployment rate has continued to rise until it stands at 10.2% – highest since 1983. When all workers who have given up looking or who have accepted part-time employment are counted, only 83% of our current workforce is fully employed. The president’s claims of “saving or creating” a million jobs – or whatever the current mystical number is – have become a grim joke among would-be workers who have run through their meager savings and are now dipping into their retirement accounts. (I personally know of people in this predicament, so this is not a fanciful construct.)

Instead of going full-throttle at the economy, the president has spent his time jetting off to the Olympic Congress in Denmark to try to secure the 2016 Olympics for the city of Chicago – an attempt that failed – and on lengthy tours of Europe and Asia, apologizing for what swine we have been, and promising to be real good from now on. In between trips he makes speeches and twists congressional arms, trying to get a massive health-care/insurance bill through Congress. The 2000-page bill will take control of 1/6th of the American economy, will saddle most Americans with significant new taxes, and will cut Medicare for seniors, by way of furnishing insurance for millions who lack it now. Polls overwhelmingly show that Americans do not want this legislation, and are far more concerned about getting work. When voters have had a chance to speak – as they did two weeks ago in New Jersey and Virginia – they have rejected the candidates most closely identified with President Obama and his policies. Their message was plain to see.

Despite all this, Mr. Obama and the Democrats drive serenely onward – pursuing the “wrong war,” while public approval continues to slide. Recently, the president’s approval rate dipped below 50% for the first time – down from over 75% at his Inauguration. Polls show that independent voters are deserting him in droves, with independent voters now opposed to the president’s policies by a 2-1 margin. In an attempt to correct things, the president’s inner circle has launched pre-emptive strikes against Fox News (Voila!), and sent Vice-president Joe Biden out to beat the drum on how many jobs the stimulus bill has saved or created. In essence, the vice-president’s message has been: Don’t you realize how good things really are?

Watching the Obama administration handle the economy is like watching a slow train wreck. Everyone knows it’s happening, but no one can do anything to stop it. More to the point, Democrats have studiously avoided actions which might actually bring things around: i.e., lowering taxes on individuals and corporations. Democrats joyfully claim that the Bush tax cuts caused last fall’s financial meltdown, but serious economists know this is false; government meddling in the mortgage industry was really to blame.

Expiration of the Bush tax cuts in 2010 is the “elephant in the parlor” no one wants to mention. The average citizen might not realize what’s going down, but businessmen – both small and large – certainly do. No matter what happens with health care and cap-and-trade, our taxes are going up. This portends a grim future. It’s why businesses are not hiring and why unemployment keeps growing. More “stimulus” money will not correct this fundamental flaw. A child could tell you not to raise taxes in a recession.

Was Iraq really the “wrong war?” The point is certainly debatable, but clearly that region and indeed our own country could never defeat terrorism while a heavily armed nation, headed by a murderous strongman, remained intact as a shelter for people of like disposition.

Is Afghanistan the “right war?” I don’t know. Hopefully someone smarter than me can figure it out. It’s a tough nut to crack – one that broke the British in the 1880s and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Time will tell if we can do it. Mr. Obama sound pretty certain about it in ’08, but not so definite now. He’s got the ball.

Less ambiguous is the fact that the economy is our must-win war at home. My crystal ball is busted, but you don’t need clairvoyance to see that a big political realignment is coming, absent some substantial prosecution of this war. No matter how good he looks in a suit (and how buff his wife’s arms are), Mr. Obama is going to crash if he stays on his current track. The economy is the “right war,” but so far our dashing young president isn’t fighting it with all the tools at his disposal. Let’s hope he gets the message and dusts off the history of the Reagan presidency. The natives are restless, and he’s running out of time.