The New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently described the United States as both “the great global security underwriter” and the “great global debtor,” and commended President Barack Obama’s Dec. 1 speech for suggesting that the U.S. couldn’t go on indefinitely being both and that it was time to back off a bit. “The nation I am most interested in building is our own,” the president said, and both Roger Cohen and this writer say: Hooray!

But can it happen?

Such a change would be popular in the United States. Most surveys on America’s two current wars, and on foreign policy in general, find majority support for staying at home and minding America’s own business. Especially now, when it has become no longer possible to treat the national deficit as if it doesn’t matter and when the president has just ordered another “surge” of troops in the Afghanistan war.

Obama says the surge will start flowing back our way in mid-2011, but I should think most Americans suspect that it will be more like a trickle, and go on until long after July 2011 — not to mention those who come home in a box, or to a lifetime of disability.

Why, if the electorate is less than enthusiastic about providing global underwriting, and would like to see others provide their own insurance, does Washington persist in its role? So far as I can see it is that the political leadership of the country is not really ready to give it up. It’s fun, and it’s profitable to American business, to be top dog.

Even the president mixes his cautions about how this can’t go on forever with warnings that our “credibility” is at stake in Afghanistan, as are “the security of our allies and the common security of the world.”

All this is at stake over whether we can catch Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida? We’ve had nine years now to catch them, but Robert Gates, America’s secretary of defense, told a national television audience last Sunday — five days after the president’s speech — that “it has been years” since American intelligence had a good idea of the whereabouts of bin Laden. Why then are another 30,000 American troops, and by mid-year 2011 as many as 100,000 more, going to be sent to look for him in Afghanistan?

Is Washington playing games with the electorate? Those troops are being sent in the hope that the new/old “clear and hold” program of the new commanders responsible for America’s Central and South Asian wars will be able to “clear” the Taliban from the Afghan-Pakistan border regions and prevent them from causing the near-term collapse of the governments of those two countries.

As for “holding” them away from the sensitive zones, if it is possible at all it would take us beyond the extreme limit of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s scenario for full success, which if my memory serves me was 50 years.

The real plan, I presume, is that U.S. forces and the Afghan authorities will find a way to deal with the security situation in a way that recognizes that the real reason for the insecurity and fighting is that the United States in 2001 drove the Pushtun Taliban out of a region of the country that belongs to them. They want it back.

Washington installed a national government mainly of Tajiks, ethnic rivals of the Pushtun. The Tajiks largely composed the Northern Alliance, with which the United States allied itself to overturn the Taliban government in 2001. President Hamid Karzai is a Pushtun tribal leader, but also Washington’s man.

Or he was until the voting scandals that discredited the recent national election. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is said to have given Karzai a good talking to, and promises that he will now be an honest president. One suspects this will not be enough. Washington is still determined to be the great security underwriter, and Barack Obama is going to pay a price for this.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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