WASHINGTON--At a White House dinner with a group of historians at the beginning of the summer, Robert Dallek, a shrewd student of both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, offered a chilling comment to President Obama.
"In my judgment," he recalls saying, "war kills off great reform movements."
The American record is pretty clear: World War I brought the Progressive Era to a close. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was waging World War II, he was candid in saying that "Dr. New Deal" had given way to "Dr. Win the War." Korea ended Harry Truman's Fair Deal, and Vietnam brought Lyndon Johnson's Great Society to an abrupt halt.
Dallek is not a pacifist and he does not pretend that his observation settles the question against war in every case. Of the four he mentioned, I think the Second World War and Korea were certainly necessary fights.
But Dallek's point helps explain why Obama is right to have grave qualms about an extended commitment of many more American troops to Afghanistan. Obama was elected not to escalate a war but to end one. The change and hope he promised did not involve a vast new campaign to transform Afghanistan.
It's easy to get enraged over the mess in Afghanistan and with the voices insisting that Obama has no choice but to repair it by going big and going long.
Too many of those who say that Obama is obligated to step up the pace in Afghanistan spent the Bush presidency neglecting that war because their main interest was in waging a new one in Iraq.
In his recent report to the president, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, noted repeatedly that the effort there had been "under-resourced." It sure would have been nice if we had settled Afghanistan before beating the drums of war in Iraq.
It's also enraging that those who insist on offsetting every penny spent to expand health coverage would never ask the Congressional Budget Office to score the costs of McChrystal's strategy. For the uninsured, they propose fiscal prudence. For war, they offer profligacy.
Yet rage is a poor guide to policy. The truth is that Obama has only bad choices in Afghanistan.
Obama has said over and over that the war in Afghanistan, unlike the war in Iraq, is necessary. "We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends and our allies," he declared last March. He cannot walk away from that.
But while his March speech was sweeping in certain ways, he defined a limited core objective. "I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal," he said, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." These are the words that will give Obama room to reconsider his policy.
McChrystal argued that the full counterinsurgency strategy he proposes demands that we "elevate the importance of governance" in Afghanistan, and, to his credit, he is brutally frank about its current dismal state.
He writes of "the crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of (Afghan government) institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement, and a long-standing lack of economic opportunity." That doesn't even take into account the fraud involved in President Hamid Karzai's re-election.
Is this a situation in which Obama should commit tens of thousands more troops for a lengthy war? Should it surprise us that some administration officials are asking why it is that al-Qaeda has weakened even as the Taliban has grown stronger? These skeptics now question whether routing the Taliban is actually essential to Obama's core goal of defeating al-Qaeda.
There's a jelling conventional wisdom that if Obama doesn't go all in with McChrystal's strategy, he is admitting defeat and backing away from his earlier pledges. Those who want him to commit now are impatient for a decision.
Obama should resist both their impatience and their criticism of his search for an alternative strategy. The last thing he should do is rush into a new set of obligations in Afghanistan that would come to define his presidency more than any victory he wins on health care.
Those most eager for a bigger war have little interest in Obama's quest for domestic reform. As he ponders his options, theirs are not the voices he should worry about.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
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