Thomas Friedman of the New York Times repeated his endorsement of the “smaller footprint” approach in Afghanistan on CNN’s Campbell Brown program on Wednesday, but couldn’t bring himself to explicitly oppose President Obama’s move to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to the country: “I have great sympathy for the President....my gut instinct was...I wish there was a smaller way to try to do this.”
Anchor Campbell Brown devoted the entire interview of the New York Times columnist, which began 13 minutes into the 8 pm Eastern hour, to Afghanistan. Brown first tried to get Friedman to expand on his doubting position on the troop increase: “General McChrystal basically getting what he wants with these additional troops- you think it’s a bad idea, I know. Explain your thinking.” The left-of-center columnist tried to spin his argument to be more about the state of the economy, and made his first hint of his sympathy with the President over the decision:
FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, it’s not that I think it’s a bad idea. It’s that I understand this is a really difficult choice that the government has to make. My preference would have gone in with a much smaller footprint, try to work with what we have in Afghanistan- local warlords, basically, you control this area, we will pay you off, rather than try to in there with a big footprint. We have to stay. I understand that.
What worries me, Campbell, is that the effort we will have to invest- time, men and women and material, in Afghanistan, at a time when we desperately need nation-building at home- I really question whether the big footprint approach as opposed to a small footprint approach was really the right way to go, and I’m not sure the President ever got from the military a small footprint approach.
BROWN: As an offer on that table.
FRIEDMAN: As an offer, as a real strategy.
BROWN: And you just mean- you know, given the state of our economy right now, our limited resources, that how on earth can you take on something of this magnitude?
FRIEDMAN: We have to make choices, that- you know, my priority and I think our country’s priority right now has to be nation-building at home. We can’t play the role that we need to play in the world without strengthening our economy, our education system, our innovation capacity, and I really question- if this were year one of the war, that would be one thing- whether in year eight of the war, we should be doubling down and taking the bigger approach, rather than the smaller approach. This is a hard call. I recognize that, but that’s what my gut tells me.
Brown then acknowledged that the columnist was part of an “elite group of people who actually got to have lunch with the President yesterday just before the speech, and hear him really lay out his case to you.” But the anchor neglected that Friedman also attended the first state dinner at the White House just days earlier. She continued by asking, “Presumably, you challenged him a little bit and gave him your perspective as well. I mean, how did he answer some of those concerns?” This set up the remainder of the interview, where the New York Times writer laid out his policy recommendations for Afghanistan. Brown would only interject by saying “right” every so often:
FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, the President knows, certainly when you listen to him, that this is really hard. This is- it’s a bet, and I would say the bet is this, that in the next- between now and July of 2011, we can create an Afghan government that will be decent enough, decent enough, that Afghans are ready to not only follow that government, but fight for that government. Well, that's a big bet. Why is that a big bet? Because President Karzai of Afghanistan, Campbell, he’s both the reason for the surge and the beneficiary of the surge, okay? Let’s remember that we’re surging in Afghanistan because his government was so corrupt, Afghans actually preferred, in some cases, to go with the Taliban. That’s why we’re surging, okay? And that’s the number-one reason. So, we have clear them out, build a space where you can have a decent Afghan government- this is the President’s argument- that people will want to be loyal to and fight for. It’s going to be a heavy lift, okay?
BROWN: But the train has left the station, let’s say. The decision is made, for better or worse. You know this region. I mean, you have written so much about this. So how optimistic are you, or how do we put this in context? How do we manage our expectations, and what do you think is really, really possible?
FRIEDMAN: Well, if I were doing my own checklist for people, what to watch for, how will you know- what does winning look like? Let’s start there.
FRIEDMAN: And my attitude is- look, the train has left the station, I don’t want my country to fail. I don’t want my President to fail. So, going forward, I’m going to be thinking about, how do we succeed?
FRIEDMAN: First, what are we looking for? We’re looking for a self-sustaining, decent Afghan government that the Afghan people want to take ownership of. Those are all really important words. It’s got to be, first of all, self-sustaining. Otherwise, we can’t get out.
FRIEDMAN: It won’t be self-sustaining unless it’s decent, and unless it’s decent, they won’t want to own it. So, that is what we’re trying to achieve. To get that, we need two big- I would say three big things. The first is, Karzai’s got to change. This guy’s been running a kleptocracy, okay, that had a lot more in common with a Mafia family, where government positions were literally sold, okay, so you could rip off people and rip off international aid. He’s got to change from running a kleptocracy to running a decent government. It’s going to be a big change, okay?
Near the end of the interview, Friedman all but made it clear that he was conflicted about being so skeptical of President Obama’s decision, but ended up concluding that “we have got to help him [Obama] succeed, because it’s us. This is not somebody else. This is our show.”
BROWN: To that point, then, do you think the timeline, setting a timeline, a deadline of sorts of 2011, is a good idea?
FRIEDMAN: It was- it’s a really complicated thing, because the President really had three messages. One was to his own base. I’m not going to get stuck there.
FRIEDMAN: The Democrats are wary about this, uncomfortable with it. The other was, to Afghans, he had to say, I’m going to be there a while. You can come out of your hiding, give us the intel, tell us where the Taliban are, you know-
BROWN: But not so long that-
FRIEDMAN: But not so long, because the message was to Karzai-
BROWN: Don’t rely on me.
FRIEDMAN: Don’t rely on me, because Karzai and the other Afghans would say, well, if you’re here, then you do the fighting. Can I hold your coat? Here, I will just put that up on my notch, and I will sit back, and watch and pop popcorn and kind of watch you do the fight. So, the President was really balancing those three messages. And so, I understand it was very, very difficult. He had multiple audiences. This is really hard. This is the problem from hell. Can I say that on this network? (laughs) This is truly- I have great sympathy for the President. But our country’s in the middle of it. You know, my gut instinct was, when I think of all of these things and our nation-building challenges at home, was, God, I wish there was a smaller way to try to do this. Maybe there isn’t. The President decided for many reasons there wasn’t. Therefore, we have got to help him succeed, because it’s us. This is not somebody else. This is our show.