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Giving Obama the Benefit of the Doubt

The sea of gray uniformed, black collared West Point cadets that faced President Barack Obama last night sent a mixed message. These were the crème de la crème of the military. Their bright young faces, which included a sprinkling of women and minorities, exhibited pride and preparedness. They were ready to follow their commander in chief wherever he would send them.

At the same time, I could not help but scan these rows of alert faces and wonder, which ones would not be there a year, two years, from now? The attractive side of war was portrayed on our television screens last night—the stirring “Hail to the Chief,” the lively sound of “The Caissons go rolling along,” which sounds so merry that one cannot help but want to hum along.

What we did not see, of course, was the burst of IED’s blowing up tanks, the faces of the wounded, or the flag draped caskets of the dead.

Listening to the President’s careful outline of his strategy for moving into Afghanistan, and then moving out, I found myself wanting to believe him. The plan sounded logical, thoughtful, and possibly successful. We are not committing ourselves to an open-ended struggle with no clear goals and timelines. In fact, the time line is what made the headlines in many newspapers. It loomed larger than the figure of 30,000 additional troops. This is a very narrowly circumscribed decision to continue the war.

But doubt keeps creeping into my mind. What if he’s wrong? What if the Taliban and Al-Qaeda just hide out in Pakistan and wait us out? What if the Karzai government can’t shape up and continues on its corrupt course? What will I feel when I look at the photographs of the young men and women who will have lost their lives?

On the other side of the argument, I recognize that President Obama inherited this war, that he, unlike his predecessor, is not making a “gut” decision but has reached a conclusion that was carefully analyzed and thought out. I also realize that if the Taliban and Al-Qaeda succeed in taking control of Afghanistan, they may provide a threat to the United States, but they will most certainly close schools for girls, and keep women within the confines of their homes. This is not the only reason to send in troops, but it is on my list.

I had reservations about the surge in Iraq, and it worked. Afghanistan is different from Iraq in many respects which the President pointed out, but this one last, concerted effort may be effective in stabilizing the country. Fortunately, we have no illusions about nation building.

Are there really good wars and bad wars? We thought so during World War II, and in retrospect, we were right. But in Vietnam, and Iraq we were wrong. Will our renewed effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan keep us safe, can we leave a more stable situation in our wake, and can we really pull out in 18 months if we’ve made little progress?

Will we ever reach a time when we can beat swords into plowshares?

So many questions. I have no final answer except to say, for now, I will give our President the benefit of the doubt in the hope that this careful man, who does not like war any more than we do, will have made the right decision.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state’s first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton’s VP. She is the author of
Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Cross-posted at the Huffington Post.

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