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The War Without Constituency

The fact is that the war in Afghanistan is a war without support. Or such support as it now has is a gesture of gratitude to David Petraeus for taking it on. The never-fading dead seem to have died for an abstraction, and the maimed--now a regular feature in the news--are the essence of the story. Can anyone argue a thesis for this war? Or a strategy?

Well, I think I could. But maybe only because I believe that an American war, once started, had better be won than lost.

The Republican national chairman Michael Steele restarted this contretemps, and he was certainly correct in saying that this was a "war of Obama's choosing." In fact, during the presidential campaign, candidate Obama derided the Iraq war as more or less of George Bush's stupid choosing while anointing the Afghanistan conflict as his own. And as history's, as well. It's clear to me, however, that history has rendered its judgement on the Iraq conflict, and the judgement is cool and clear. Iraq is the one country in the Arab world that will be and is, in some measure, already run by coalition politics, multi-sectarian and multi-ethnic. This is the real triumph over the politics of Hussein and the Hussein tyranny. And it also puts an end, for better or worse (and I think better), to Sunni hegemony.

Whatever they truly think, the Republican leadership in Congress is deeply upset by their chairman's challenge to the president. Being less hawkish than the Democrats is not a comfortable stance for the patriot pols of the G.O.P. Moreover, their discomfort with the party chairman is not limited to issues of war and peace. It seems, however, that they will fence him in...and keep him. A black face, particularly one hiding the head of a reactionary, is often useful.

It is not that we don't have stakes in Afghanistan, though these stakes are protracted through Pakistan, the politics of which are perhaps the most dishonest in the Muslim world. But at least it has a politics...and it has an army with clearer interests than its warring clans and tribes and its drug gangs whose loyalties shift with the poppy winds . Which makes us dependent on the military, without them being especially reliable. We have to hope that the officers have control of the nuclear cache. This is, as you can see, not a stable situation.

Were it not for General McChrystal's great faux pas the Afghan war would have been being pursued almost without notice. No constituency for. No constituency against. No one even watching.

Petraeus has changed all that simply by moving to the front. If there are material changes on the front, President Obama will have to confront his own deadline and make his own case for going beyond it. This is an ideological trap for the president. But, if he is not caught in this trap, he will be caught in his own made-to-order snare. If you don't win by trying to win, you lose by losing.