Real men don't read D.C. pundits

Brooks and Krauthammer try to macho-bait Obama into the McChrystal escalation in Afghanistan

By Joan Walsh

Published October 31, 2009 12:31AM (EDT)

Honestly, not a day goes by without something making me think about the fabulous Onion headline the day President Obama was elected: "Black man given nation's worst job." Just like African-Americans got to run the cities when they lost their manufacturing and tax base, Obama got to run the country as the Bush-Cheney recession seemed headed into a depression and the banking system approached collapse at home, all while facing two mismanaged wars and the threat of terror around the world.

He had a lot to complain about, and conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer has had enough. In Friday's Washington Post he called Obama a whiner:

Is there anything he hasn't blamed George W. Bush for? The economy, global warming, the credit crisis, Middle East stalemate, the deficit, anti-Americanism abroad -- everything but swine flu.

Wow, I look at that list and I think those are all things we should all blame Bush for, except swine flu. But what Krauthammer is really trying to do is elaborate on the Dick Cheney slur from last week: That Obama is "dithering" on Afghanistan, and he's "afraid" to make a decision.

Again, coming from the neocon Iraq war boosters who countenanced the abandonment of the Afghan war to fight a pointless war in Iraq, the criticism is galling. And the idea that the president may have been "dithering" when he went to visit the war dead at Dover Air Force Base this week is offensive. Obama knows what he has to do this week, and it's a good thing he took the time to let the mortal implications of his decisions sink in.

Even worse than Krauthammer's column today, though, was David Brooks in the New York Times. Partly it's because Brooks likes to pretend to be open-minded and reasonable, while spouting neocon talking points, and occasionally liberals get pulled in by him. But today was trademark lazy ideological Brooks. As Glenn Greenwald notes, unbelievably he bragged about "doing what journalists are supposed to do" -- which he defined as talking to a handful of anonymous pro-war sources, who uniformly criticized Obama's inaction to date on McCrystal's troop request.

That's some brave shit. Not quite David Rohde brave, but hey, he made the calls! If it was unanimous, that means he didn't call retired Marine Matthew Hoh, who resigned from a civilian post in Afghanistan this week because he said we can't win, and our presense is only fueling the insurgency. Hoh told the Washington Post's Karen de Young he's "not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love" and that he believes "there are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," adding: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

That question of toughness, macho, manhood, always comes up when we discuss what it would mean for Obama to get realistic about his two wars and get really serious about winding them down. David Brooks' worst Obama slur in his Friday column was the quietly outrageous, ad hominem, Peggy Noonan-ish revelation that his unanimous pro-war sources don't question Obama's smarts or understanding: "Their first concerns are about Obama the man." Oooooh. And here's how Brooks defines manhood: "tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion."

Brooks might protest that he meant "man" as a stand-in for "person," but it's hard to imagine him writing that sentence about President Hillary Clinton and saying, "Their first concerns are about Clinton the woman." Man equals warrior, and like Maureen Dowd before him, another Times columnist seems to be questioning Obama's manhood.

And yet I'm going to give Krauthammer one point: We're awfully close to a deadline for a big Obama decision on Afghanistan, especially since the president took one crack at the Bush-Cheney mess with a "comprehensive" new policy last March. Sure, after seven years of GOP neglect, it's a lot to expect an Obama plan to turn things around in seven months. Still, he committed himself to a new path in Afghanistan; so far there's little to show for it; his top commander in the country is publicly demanding more troops; it's time for him to lead. I am personally hoping he leads us out of the war, so I'm a little more patient than neocons who just want him to jump on McChrystal's recommendations. But even I have limits to my patience.

Next year we'll have been in Afghanistan longer than the Soviets were. Increasingly, we know we're propping up a corrupt, illegitimate government. Hamid Karzai's brother is on the CIA's payroll. Today talks between Karzai and presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah broke down, and while it's going to be hard to trust next week's runoff election, it's looming as crucial. I don't think Obama can or should be expected to launch a brand-new strategy with so much uncertainty this week, but I'm hoping he's listening to the folks preaching counterterrorism, and not McChrystal's version of counterinsurgency, which seems a blueprint for a Soviet-style quagmire and defeat. Most important, I hope he's not listening to Krauthammer or Brooks, because despite their translating Cheney's dithering slur into other big words, they'll never applaud decisiveness unless it endorses their war-without-end world view.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Afghanistan Barack Obama