There are many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but they resemble each other in one critical way. In both countries, the "bad guys," the violent jihadists, are losing. And in both countries, it still is not clear if the "good guys" will really turn out to be good.
And the big question the Obama team is facing in both countries is: Should we care if these countries are run by decent leaders or by drug-dealing, oil-stealing extras from "The Sopranos" — as long as we can just get out?
At this stage, alas, we have to care — and here's why.
I've read a lot of analyses lately criticizing President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for coming down so hard on Afghan President Hamid Karzai's corruption. Karzai's the best we've got, goes the argument. Sure, he stole his election, but he is still more popular than anyone else in Afghanistan and would have won anyway. (Then why did he have to steal it? Never mind.)
The Bush team took this kind of "neo-realist" approach to Afghanistan. It had no desire to do state-building there. Once Karzai was installed, President George W. Bush ignored the corruption of Karzai and his cronies. All the Bush team wanted was for Karzai to hold the country together so the United States could use it as a base to go after al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This low-key approach made a lot of sense to me because I never thought Afghanistan was that important. But, unfortunately, the Karzai government became so bad that many Afghans turned back to the Taliban.
So the Obama team came with a new strategy: We have to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan if we are going to keep al-Qaida in check there and in Pakistan — and the only way to do that is by clearing them out of the towns and installing decent Afghan police, judges and bureaucrats.
I still wish we had opted for a less intrusive alternative; I'm still skeptical about the whole thing. But I understand the logic of the Obama strategy and, given that logic, he was right to chastise Karzai — even publicly. If decent governance is the key to our strategy, it is important that Afghans see and hear where we stand on these issues. Otherwise, where will they find the courage to stand up for better governance?
We need to bring along the whole society. Never forget, the Karzai regime's misgovernance is the reason we're having to surge anew in Afghanistan. I'm sure the surge will beat the bad guys, but if the "good guys" are no better, it will all be for naught.
In the Cold War, all that mattered was whether a country was allied with us. What matters in Obama's war in Afghanistan is whether the Afghan people are allied with their own government and each other. Only then can we get out and leave behind something stable, decent and self-sustaining.
Unlike Afghanistan, the war in Iraq was, at its core, always driven more by idealism than realism. It was sold as being about WMD. But, in truth, it was really a rare exercise in the revolutionary deployment of U.S. power. The immediate target was to topple Saddam's genocidal dictatorship. But the bigger objective was to help Iraqis midwife a democratic model that could inspire reform across the Arab-Muslim world and give the youth there a chance at a better future. Again, the Iraq story is far from over, but one does have to take heart at the recent elections there and the degree to which Iraqi voters favored multiethnic, modernizing parties.
So, while Obama came to office looking at both Iraq and Afghanistan as places where we need to be focused more on protecting our interests than promoting our ideals, he's finding himself, now in office, having to promote a more idealist approach to both. The world will be a better place if it works, but it will require constant vigilance. When Karzai tries to gut an independent election commission, that matters. When the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, refuses to accept a vote count certified by the U.N. that puts him in second place, that matters.
As I have said before, friends don't let friends drive drunk — especially when we're still in the back seat alongside an infant named Democracy.
THE NEW YORK TIMES