As the president and his National Security Council privately debate whether to send tens of thousands of troops to war, America's European allies watch with a mixture of anxiety and anguish. They know that if the deployment goes forward, they will be asked to make their own difficult and politically costly contributions of soldiers or other personnel. But they are, if anything, even more worried that the American president will choose a feckless strategy for what they consider a critical mission. And they are frustrated that they must watch and wait — and wait and wait — for the president to make up his mind.
"Everyone is waiting for what is going to be decided in the Oval Office, without having any chance to have our say," moans a senior commander in one European army.
No, Norwegian Nobel Committee, this is not George W. Bush but Barack Obama, the president lionized for favoring harmonious collaboration with the rest of the world. It's fair to say that Obama has tried harder than Bush to coordinate policy with U.S. allies. But his deliberations on Afghanistan are demonstrating how some fundamentals of being a superpower never really change.
For example, when you're supplying 70 percent of the troops for a war and doing 90 percent of the fighting, your allies may just have to cool their heels while you decide whether to escalate, hold steady or blow up your strategy.
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And while they wait, they will stew. In conversations with senior European officials visiting Washington, D.C., and at a transatlantic conference sponsored by Italy's Magna Carta Foundation last weekend, I heard an earful of Euro-anxiety about the strategy review Obama is conducting. Some of the concern is simply about the spectacle of a young American president hesitating about going forward with a strategy that he committed himself to just months ago — and what effect that wavering might have on enemies both in Afghanistan and farther afield.
But a surprising amount of the worry, considering the continental source, is about whether Obama will be strong enough — whether he will, in the words of one ambassador, "walk away from a mission that we have all committed ourselves to."
European governments bought in to Obama's ambitious plan to pacify Afghanistan when he presented it in March. Unlike the U.S. president, they mostly haven't had second thoughts. By and large they agree with the recommendations developed by the commander Obama appointed, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who says that unless the momentum of the Taliban is broken in the next year, the war may be lost.
It's hard for European leaders to argue that Obama should send the 40,000 or more reinforcements that McChrystal is seeking, since they will be accompanied, at best, by only 2,000 to 3,000 more Europeans. So they tend to focus on the other half of the equation: why the West cannot give up on the effort to stabilize Afghanistan under a decent government.
"We need to create a stable government in Afghanistan, a government we can deal with," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said during a recent visit to Washington. "Otherwise we will be faced with permanent instability in Afghanistan and in the region."
Rasmussen and other Europeans are also happy to speak up publicly against the strategy sometimes attributed to Vice President Joe Biden, under which the United States would focus on counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida with drones or special forces. "Why are there no Predator strikes in Peshawar or Quetta? Because it can't be done," said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country currently represents the European Union. "But we know leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban are hiding in those urban areas. I fail to see that as a viable strategy."
Britain, naturally, has made the most direct attempt to sway the Washington debate. Last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that he would add 500 troops to Britain's contingent of 9,000 — a step that wouldn't make much sense if the United States were to scale down its own commitment. His defense staff chief left no doubt about where the British military stands. "I don't want to put words in the mouths of the Americans, but I am fairly confident of the way it is going to come out," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who added that he agreed with "just about all" of McChrystal's report.
In fact, administration officials say the president hasn't made up his mind; they also say that he had no problem with Brown's announcement. For now, it seems to me that the most likely outcome of the internal debate is a decision to send some additional military trainers or other troops, but not the full combat force McChrystal wants.
If that's his decision, Obama will have some work to do with allies. "Once a decision is made, Obama is going to have to reach out directly to his European counterparts," said another ambassador. "They are going to need a lot of persuasion."