Some on the left are upset with the President's failure to close Gitmo and his increased use of drone strikes. Some on the right are upset with his treatment of Israel and his kid gloves approach to Iran. But all agree that Obama's targeting and successful elimination of Osama bin Laden was a success. This election season, it's the President's foreign policy trump card.
There's no doubt that decision will continue to be a big plus for the President and that he knows it (his recently released 17 minute campaign video features it). However, events on the ground in Afghanistan have surely put a strain on Obama's popular image as a successful wartime President. To put it mildly, the last three months in Afghanistan have been a series of disasters falling like dominoes. The most recent one fell this week when Hamid Karzai told reporters he was at the "end of the rope."
Here's a timeline of significant events in Afghanistan that have occurred this year:
- January 11th: Video of US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses goes viral.
- February 20th: U.S. troops inadvertently burn copies of the Koran which were thrown in with trash leading to massive riots, the lockdown of the US embassy in Afghanistan, and at least 23 deaths including two US soldiers.
- March 11th: Staff Sgt. Robert Bales allegedly snaps and kills 16 Afghan civilians, including a number of children near his base.
- March 16th: Karzai says he is at the "end of the rope" and call for US troops to pull out of rural areas.
The President isn't directly accountable for the actions of rogue soldiers, but their actions can still color American's perceptions of the war, a war Obama is ultimately responsible for dealing with in his role as Commander-in-Chief. So, for instance, only the most die-hard partisans attempted to directly blame George Bush for the events at Abu Ghraib, but the media circulated the photos until they became emblematic of a certain fatalistic view of the Iraq War, one which played a significant role on the President's popularity. Similarly, images of Marines behaving inappropriately and chaos in the streets of Afghanistan may play a role in this year's elections even if the events don't directly trace back to the President's intended strategy there.
Recall that Afghanistan was the good war, the one that anti-war darling Barack Obama wanted the US to fight. In 2007-2008, he argued that we had been distracted from our main mission in Afghanistan by a costly misadventure in Iraq. He said that President Bush's surge of troops into Iraq was a compounding of this mistake, one that would only lead to more failure. Obama turned out to be wrong about that last claim and spent much of 2008 dancing around the topic in interviews. But the President should know as well as anyone that it's possible to capitalize politically on the perceived failings of a wartime President, whether or not those events were directly in his control.
And Obama himself does play a role in these events, even if it's only a reactive one. In the wake of the accidental burning of Korans in February, the President made several apologies and instructed his commanders on the ground to do likewise. For some Americans, these apologies seemed a bit excessive and possibly even counter-productive. The rioting seemed to get worse after the apologies were issued.
The bin Laden trump card is still a powerful factor in the President's favor, but as each domino falls in Afghanistan it appears the war will play a bigger role in this election cycle than anyone expected. Given that the "distraction" of Iraq is in the rear view mirror and Obama is on record wanting this fight, he's got no one else to blame the failures on this time around.