As President Barack Obama pressed flesh, inked documents and delivered a major foreign policy speech in Afghanistan yesterday, his two-track message rang out loud and clear: I am the man who ends the wars my predecessor started, vote for me to ensure a peaceful future.
The choice of May 1 to sign the Strategic Partnership Agreement was far from coincidental. The ghost of Osama bin Laden hung over every minute of the president’s seven-hour visit, reminding the American people that, just one year ago, the president had shown the fortitude to order the raid that ended the life of the most wanted man on earth.
Now Obama was multiplying that victory by announcing that the war spawned by the 9/11 attacks was nearly won.
“Here, in the pre-dawn darkness of Afghanistan, we can see the light of a new day on the horizon,” he said in his address to the nation, broadcast live all over the world.
But even as the president reassured Americans that the end of was in sight, the Taliban was planning more attacks in Kabul. Barely had the president’s plane left the capital when six suicide bombers tried to enter a compound in eastern Kabul where foreigners lived, setting off explosions that killed at least seven people.
The Strategic Partnership Agreement itself is a largely symbolic deal that purports to map out future cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the United States. It contains no new commitments, is short on specifics, and in general reaffirms promises made in other venues under other circumstances. It has had a long and troubled history, with President Hamid Karzai putting roadblocks in the way at every step.
The Afghan head of state wants a commitment to continued economic support — a minimum of $2 billion per year — while preserving the right to criticize his US backers as fiercely and emotionally as he deems fit.
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The Americans just want out — as soon as possible, but with the fig leaf of “stabilization” preserving their image as a world leader.
None of this was in evidence Tuesday evening, though; the two presidents smiled for the cameras and uttered soothing words about each other’s sacrifice and courage, trying their best to court their local constituencies.
It was good theater, but not much else.
That mattered little at home in the United States, however. Good theater can win elections, and Barack Obama was every inch the candidate as he worked his way through the events in Kabul.
Pundits and politicians were divided in their reactions to the trip. Some, like Senator John McCain, were careful not to criticize Obama for the timing of the event. Visiting troops was something that presidents do, he told CNN, and the trip was not necessarily political.
"I think it's always good when the president goes to where our young men and women are in harm's way,” he said.
But Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe blasted the president for the visit, saying it was a campaign–related event.
“This trip to Afghanistan is an attempt to shore up his national security credentials, because he has spent the past three years gutting our military,” Inhofe said in a statement issued Tuesday.
Obama’s rival for the presidency, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, remained silent. He had been conducting his own bit of political theater, eating pizza with firefighters and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a Manhattan firehouse that lost 11 in the September 11 attacks.
Romney’s politicking received scant notice, however, with most media focused on the president’s secret visit to a war zone.
Obama’s trip came on the heels of a nasty spat, in which both sides used rhetoric and emotion to try and damage their competitor.
Last week, the Obama campaign issued an ad in which former President Bill Clinton praised the president for the tough choice he had made in ordering the raid that killed bin Laden, implying that others might not have chosen the same path.
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In 2007, Romney had said, "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," a statement used by the Obama campaign to suggest that the presumptive Republican nominee would not have given the order to take out the man who ordered the 9/11 attacks.
Obama left no room for doubt when he told a White House press conference on Monday, “I said that I would go after bin Laden if we had a clear shot at him and I did. If there are others who said one thing and now suggest they would do something else, I’d go ahead and let them explain.”
The fracas caused a major stir in the campaign, leading Romney to say that “of course” he would have gone ahead with the raid, while taking a rather cheap shot at the Democrats’ supposed reputation for military weakness:
“Even Jimmy Carter would have given that order,” he said during a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday.
Romney is in a difficult position on Afghanistan. He has to try and separate himself from the president on the issue, but there is limited room for maneuver.
Obama is advocating “peace with dignity,” and Romney cannot easily champion greater involvement in a war that is extremely unpopular with the majority of Americans.
Nor can he unduly criticize the president’s performance without irritating the military and many constituents, who are determined to bill Afghanistan as a success story.
In the meantime, while the politicians of various stripes may profess themselves to be “shocked, SHOCKED” that politicking is going on during an election year, the rest of us will have to resign ourselves to a steady diet of campaign theater thinly disguised as momentous world events.