One of the tough things about politics is the performance art aspect. From at least the moment of his inauguration, President Obama has distressed his liberal supporters with a number of policy decisions that have confounded expectations. By the time he got around to announcing his detention policies for terrorism suspects, it seemed the only thing American liberals could hope for is that he was playing a long hand, working with what he had until he could plot some useful and decent change of course for the nation.

While there are some encouraging signs, it is far too early to declare that Obama really is doing something so insane as to start pulling those changeling rabbits out of his hat starting in late 2010 or early 2011.

However, Peter baker and Elisabeth Bumiller wrote yesterday for the New York Times that the president is considering alternative strategies for the disastrous endeavor in Afghanistan:

President Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan, including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan, officials said Tuesday.

The options under review are part of what administration officials described as a wholesale reconsideration of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago. Two new intelligence reports are being conducted to evaluate Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.

The sweeping reassessment has been prompted by deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and a dire report by Mr. Obama’s new commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Aides said the president wanted to examine whether the strategy he unveiled in March was still the best approach and whether it could work with the extra combat forces General McChrystal wants.

In looking at other options, aides said, Mr. Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to the anticipated troop request from General McChrystal. But the review suggests the president is having second thoughts about how deeply to engage in an intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well.

Although Mr. Obama has said that a stable Afghanistan is central to the security of the United States, some advisers said he was also wary of becoming trapped in an overseas quagmire. Some Pentagon officials say they worry that he is having what they called “buyer’s remorse” after ordering an extra 21,000 troops there within weeks of taking office before even settling on a strategy.

Buyer’s remorse? Really? I mean, it’s difficult, from certain political positions, to actually be happy about certain developments because the good news is prompted by bad. Such as the Iraqi Bush Adventure. Well, yeah, that became the disaster that many saw, but it really is kind of shitty to pat yourself on the back or celebrate your prescience when your justification is that people are dying, being maimed, and generally suffering. How does that work? “Hooray! Another bomb exploded! Look at all those dead children. I told you, didn’t I? Remember? I did. I said this would happen.”

In the end, you just shake your head, hold out your hands in a pleading gesture, and ask, “Do you get it yet? How about now?”

Iraq has largely fallen from the public’s consideration for a number of reasons. First, while it’s not over, there is a schedule to get out, and we’re pretty much on it, so in a lot of people’s minds, it actually is over. This is because all it ever was in the first place was a political argument. We’re done. We’re trying to get out of there. There is no political argument to be had until we’re out of Iraq and the whole place falls even further to shit. And then conservatives get to have the awkward moment. “Hooray! Look at how bad things got after we left! Look at all those dead children. We told you, didn’t we? Remember? We did. We said this would happen.”

I actually wonder how many of them will be crass enough to say it. I’ve encountered leftists who seem almost gleeful at each new tragedy in the theatre.

With Afghanistan, though, it’s just tragic. Yeah, I know. No invading army has ever won in the Kush. But, still, the thing is that the Afghani Bush War never was never really a sincere effort because we needed the troops for Iraq. And this is especially infuriating because, while I am a pacifist, I do acknowledge historical customs regarding warfare, and by those customs we had every right and plenty of need to enter Afghanistan. Yet we could only manage, by the end of the Bush administration, perhaps a fifth of the troop count in Afghanistan that we deployed in Iraq.

Senator Obama, on the campaign trail, made it clear as early as summer, 2007, when he engaged in some chest-beating to out-hawk Senator Clinton, that he would step up in Afghanistan. And yes, if you’re going to have a war, then do it sincerely. But the looming question is whether or not it is too late to save the nation-building task.

We’re only up to about 62,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the president may or may not be balking at sending more. Perhaps he is just “testing assumptions”, as some suggest. But if Obama is, in fact, seriously considering Biden’s alleged plan to reduce (“scale back”) American forces and pursue a narrower focus, it would seem that the question of whether the broader campaign can be saved looms ominously in the president’s outlook.

Who knows? Maybe this is how we should have done it in the beginning. Open the war, end around the Taliban, grab Osama bin Laden, then demand a peace. When the Taliban demanded compensation for the invasion, Bush could have told them that their compensation was that we didn’t take them down in the process. Because let’s face it: Even if we had done the proper thing and actually offered the Taliban our case to assure them of bin Laden’s guilt—isn’t this common with domestic extradition, that you give officials in the other state some assurance that there is an actual reason for wishing to seize a person within their borders?—and even if the Taliban had been persuaded to go along with us (perhaps at risk of dire consequences for not), do we really think they could have survived as Afghanistan’s rulers in a knock-down, drag-out fight with Al Qaeda? I mean, Joe Rogan’s infamous crack about a goat’s vagina comes to mind, but even if Mullah Omar and company had won the day, they would have been a wreck. And, to be certain, if American troops marched into the country, cut through resistance, seized a bunch of Al Qaeda terrorists, and then walked back out, how could the Afghani people see the Taliban as anything other than impotent? We could have been done with this before the invasion of Iraq.

But that was then. It’s a nice what-if, I guess, but there is no real answer.

What we face in Afghanistan today is far different. We have a failing nation-building project, a “democratic” government reeling under the impact of a vote-rigging scandal, and not nearly enough people in the theatre to get the job done. But I’m not sure 150,000 troops, or even a quarter-million if we could pull that off, would be enough. And part of that, of course, is that we have so soured our reputation with the New American Century. Stepping up now would jack the body count—perhaps exponentially—and likely cause even deeper resentment among those who cheered our loss on that horrible day.

One often wonders, especially since the Clinton years, what kind of person actually wants to be president. It would be hard to believe there is anyone so inclined who would envy President Obama the choices he faces in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to figure what victory equals. But it’s even harder to admit when you’re beat. And, frankly, scaling back our forces and refocusing from the nation-building would be admitting just that.

And this is the war we had the right to get ourselves into.

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