The challenge for President Obama is to explain to the American people why Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan are worth the lives of yet more Americans. So far, Obama has stuck pretty close to the message that he is determined to eliminate al-Qaeda -- and more power to him. But that is too little, too late. The Taliban has already spilled over the border. A bit of nation-building is what Pakistan needs. That will take time -- considerably more than the year Obey and others are willing to grant.
The relevant history here may not be Vietnam at all. It could be World War I. The assassination of a single man somehow set off a chain reaction in which millions were killed and, after a pause, it all resumed under a different name: World War II. (Books are still being written about the cause of World War I.) Now, though, the stakes are so much greater. The region is a nuclear neighborhood, a pharmacy for nuclear addicts with Pakistan choosing to add even more weapons instead of -- just an idea -- opening some schools. The region is roiled. The only constant is enmity.
The critics of Obama's policy for the region are not easily dismissed. Vietnam has its lessons; Iraq, too. What's more, they have their cumulative effect. A kind of national weariness has set in. Why us? Why is it that Americans are always asked to risk their lives? Where the hell is everyone else?
These are hard questions to answer. But an even harder question could someday come after a nuclear catastrophe when people demand to know why nothing much was done to head it off. The answer cannot be that our year was up.
Do you follow? Even though there are "hard questions", we don't need to worry too much about the actual answers to those questions (beyond a little column-ish hand wringing and acknowledgment of the hardness of the questions) because the hardest question of all would be posed by a little crying American child asking why we let Al Qaeda nuke New York or something.
I give Cohen points for trying, in that he at least acknowledges that there are no good answers to the hard questions (but I also deduct points for bad questions like "Where the hell is everyone else? The answer is, getting killed in Afghanistan too.) But we've seen quite pointedly the results of the "there's a 5% chance that this very, very awful thing could happen if we don't go to war so of course all serious people should acknowledge that we must go to war (and don't worry about the odds of bad things happen because we go to war because those things aren't as awful as the 5% chance very, very awful thing)" school of foreign policy. That's not a serious approach to foreign policy and warmaking and quite honestly, it's annoying to have to read in major newspapers (over and over again) columns written by people like Cohen, who I'm sure was grimacing and grimly stroking his beard as he came to the necessary conclusion that we must forever fight in Afghanistan if we are to prevent certain catastrophe, after which he submitted the column to his editors and then went out and had a latte or something.