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Obama's dilemma over carts and horses

Mark Mardell | 14:41 UK time, Monday, 21 September 2009

If the president is turning his mind with relief from the torrid debate about healthcare to loftier discussions of foreign policy, he may not stay relieved for long.

He has to look a horse in the mouth, and one thing is for certain: this beast is not a gift.

In a deliberately stark contrast to his predecessor's disdain, he is taking a full part, a leading part, in the United Nations deliberations in New York this week.

Iran, climate change, the Middle East peace process, none of these are easy, and all present Mr Obama with domestic problems as well as international opportunities.

But Afghanistan is the most immediate and perhaps the trickiest. The BBC broke the story of the McChrystal report a few weeks ago, but now the Washington Post has apparently seen the full document.

It presents the president with a difficult choice. On yesterday's round of TV interviews, Mr Obama made it clear that the reason for being in Afghanistan was to deny potential terrorists a base to carry out another terrible attack like that on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

It was about protecting America, and - by implication - not about building a democratic, functioning nation, and even less about managing an open-ended occupation.

But here is the president's dilemma. The McChrystal report, boiled down, says that the US can only achieve its aims by building up the Afghan people's trust in a functioning government, with a police and military that can do the job.

Until that is done, there have to be more allied forces in more areas of the country visibly protecting the people from a Taliban that is growing in authority, and runs a shadow administration. It is not simply about killing the enemy.

Now that sounds a lot like nation-building. The president has talked about not putting the cart before the horse, by which he means not talking about more troops or other resources before the strategy is in place.

He may have decided he admires Gen McChrystal's thoroughbred and that it is worth hitching a buggy on the back.

If so, he will find it tough to sell the general's policy to a party and public reluctant to see more men and women sent to bolster an Afghan government accused of election fraud.

It is my hunch that he has strategically adopted his current cautious, sceptical tone in order to better sell the policy further down the road.

But it is only a hunch and it could be wrong.

The president could decide that Gen McChrystal's nag does not deserve a cart and put it out to pasture.

But then he would be faced with accusations of cutting and running and undermining the very man he appointed to come up with a fresh perspective.

Perhaps presidents should be extra cautious about generals with a Mc in their name, and a public spat with such a respected figure would be immensely harmful.

Maybe healthcare is easier after all.

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