The success of a President is measured not only by how well he handles the agenda he sets for his term in office, but by how he responds to the unexpected. This week President Obama was tested by challenges of each type. There are new questions being raised about the war in Afghanistan (America's longest war) and growing concern about the ever-expanding oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (America's most devastating environmental disaster). While the first of these is being called "Obama's Vietnam", the other is sometimes referred to as "Obama's Katrina"
It is fair to say that Afghanistan is a disaster that this President inherited from his predecessor, but it also a fact that Obama embraced this war early in his campaign for the presidency. At pains to establish his national security credentials and to make clear that he would be a responsible Commander in Chief, then candidate Obama contrasted his opposition to the war in Iraq, which he termed the "wrong war", to the "right war" in Afghanistan which he declared he must fight and win.
In making his case, Obama correctly observed that the Bush Administration, though failing to meet its objectives in Afghanistan, had mistakenly abandoned the task of eliminating the threat of al Qaeda shifting resources and attention to Iraq. As a result they allowed al Qaeda to metastasize into a regional menace and the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
As President, Obama worked with his military leadership to develop a plan to dramatically increase troops and resources in Afghanistan. Facing stiff opposition from Democrats in Congress, he was forced to include in his plan a somewhat vaguely worded timetable leading to a withdrawal of U.S. forces - beginning in July of 2011.
On paper the plan seemed clear, but whether it would lead to victory or even progress was not so clear. As we approach the plan's first big test - a major intervention in Kandahar - serious questions are being asked. The pre-Kandahar effort to "liberate" tiny neighboring Marjah, though initially touted as a success, is now seen to be unraveling, with the Taliban resurgent in that area. General Stanley McChrystal acknowledged as much last month when he referred to Marjah as a "bleeding ulcer". All of this does not bode well for efforts in significantly larger Kandahar.
The problems plaguing Afghanistan are many, with some pre-dating even the neglectful and reckless policies pursued during the Bush era: a wily leadership of questionable legitimacy, fueled by corruption, war-lordism, and drugs; deep resentment of outsiders; and fierce competition between neighboring powers seeking to project or protect their interests in Afghanistan.
All of this has been compounded by the spreading of the conflict into Pakistan and the unpopularity of the U.S. in that country owing both to its broader regional policies and to the expanded use of sometimes inaccurate drone missile attacks against suspected al Qaeda and Taliban targets.
With U.S. casualties growing (soon more Americans will have been killed in Afghanistan during the Obama presidency than in Bush's time in office) and destined to increase even more as the conflict intensifies, domestic opposition both in Congress and the broader public is mounting. The disaster was Bush's, but this war is now President Obama's.
This week, General Petraeus faced tough questions about the war's progress and whether or not the Administration was sticking to its July "deadline". While it is becoming increasingly clear that this war will not soon be "won" (or even that it can be won), the President's dilemma is the same as it was a year ago, with bad choices all around.
Obama had a somewhat better week in dealing with the unexpected disaster in the Gulf. After facing weeks of criticism for failing to act, much of it partisan and unfair, the Administration has begun to make its case and demonstrate leadership. The President spent the first two days of the week in the Gulf region speaking with officials and individuals whose livelihoods are being impacted by the spill. He returned to Washington to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. While the speech was not particularly compelling, it did provide the President the opportunity to outline his Administration's response to date - the resources they have committed and the actions they have taken. The President established the seriousness with which he views this challenge and issued a "call to war" - making clear his resolve to spare no effort until the spill is stopped and the Gulf region is restored.
The next day, the President met with executives from BP, the company responsible for the leak, and was able to deliver on the first of his commitments. BP officials issued an apology for the damage done, announced that they would place $20 billion in an escrow account to pay to claimants for damages incurred, and would forego paying dividends to shareholders. To understand the magnitude of this accomplishment one need only recall that in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, while claims against Exxon totaled $7.1 billion, the company contested these and in the end paid out a mere $383 million (while reporting almost $9 billion in profits in '89 and '90).
If this leak can be stopped, if the damage can be contained, and if efforts to restore the Gulf coast can bear fruit (all big "ifs"), the President's efforts can, despite early criticism, be judged successful. Afghanistan is a different and more difficult story with no clear way forward.