Almost one year into the Obama presidency, we still think he's a smart guy. And that's why it pains us when he takes a position that is intellectually inconsistent, if not dishonest.
Obama's weakest position, in our view, has been his determination to "look forward, not backward" regarding the apparent crimes of the Bush administration. That stance has never made sense, and it makes even less sense now that Obama has announced plans to send 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
At the heart of the Obama plan is a push to root out corruption in Afghanistan. And that's ironic because Obama has shown no interest in rooting out corruption here at home.
Why the surge in Afghanistan? Obama hopes to stabilize the country and turn it over to the government of President Hamid Karzai. Unfortunately, the Karzai government is flagrantly corrupt, marked by cronyism and electoral fraud.
Sounds a lot like the Bush administration, doesn't it? But Obama wants Americans to forget all the pain that was inflicted upon our democracy over the past eight years.
Obama is a smart guy, so he should be able to see the irony in headlines like this: "White House Tells Karzai to Fight Corruption or be Left Behind." Consider this report out of France last week:
The White House on Wednesday warned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to fight corruption or see Washington bypass his cabinet and seek out lower level officials to provide essential services to Afghans.
The warning--coming a day after Obama said the US government would no longer give Afghanistan a "blank check" for US aid--turned up the pressure on Karzai to end the corruption seen as fueling the Taliban insurgency.
Here's a key statement from Obama's speech last week at West Point:
"We'll support Afghan ministries, governors, and local leaders that combat corruption and deliver for the people. We expect those who are ineffective or corrupt to be held accountable."
Accountability for corruption? That's exactly what many progressives want to see regarding the Bush administration. But Obama, so far, has turned a deaf ear.
How concerned is the White House about corruption in Afghanistan? Consider this report from The New York Times:
In addition, some American officials and their European counterparts would like at least a few arrests of what one administration official called “the more blatantly corrupt” people in the Afghan government.
The names of some high-profile Afghans have been floated for possible arrest, including Karzai's brother who is suspected of being a major player in the country's illegal opium trade. Writes the Times:
“A couple of high-profile heads on a platter would be nice,” said one European diplomat involved in Afghanistan.
High-profile heads on a platter? What about the ones who are close at hand? Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, perhaps the most prominent victim of a political prosecution during the Bush era, has pointed to a "high-profile head"--a guy who goes by the name of Karl Rove. But the Obama administration seems to have no platters for such high-profile heads here at home.
The surge in Afghanistan cannot work, Obama seems to be saying, if the people do not have a government they can trust. But the president apparently does not realize that, after eight years under George W. Bush, many Americans see no reason to trust their government. And that could doom Obama's efforts at change.
Which brings us back to our essential question: Why is corruption a problem when it occurs in Afghanistan, but not when it happens in the United States?
How Obama answers that question might largely determine the success or failure of his presidency.