Published for www.washingtonpost.com, March 2, 2012

For me, the Koran-burningin Afghanistan brought back memories of the horrible morning at the White House when photos of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced. This is not to argue that an act of negligence at Bagram Air Base is morally comparable to the grinning barbarity of military police at Abu Ghraib. It is only to empathize with an administration facing events that aren’t its fault but that are its problem.

The pie chart of an American military operation is dominated by honor and excellence, with a sliver of incompetence and abuse. The sliver can make a lot of news. In these cases, the president’s role is to serve the interests of the nation and the troops under his command. If those interests are best secured by an apology, there is no dishonor in it.

The Taliban have naturally exploited America’s trash-dump blunder. Domestic critics of President Obama, and opponents of the Afghan war, have attempted to do the same. Newt Gingrich, with typical enraged incoherence, occupied both camps. He charged that Obama, by his apology, had “surrendered” — and then proceeded to urge American surrender. “If Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, doesn’t feel like apologizing,” said Gingrich, “then we should say goodbye and good luck, we don’t need to be here risking our lives and wasting our money on somebody who doesn’t care.”

Gingrich would shape U.S. grand strategy in a fit of personal pique with a foreign leader. It is the type of Republican foreign policy attack that makes Obama look like Metternich.

More serious critics of the war contend that the Afghan reaction to the Koran-burning incident — including the treacherous killing of American officers — indicates a doomed counterinsurgency campaign. Afghan hearts and minds, they argue, are beyond winning.

The frustration is understandable, but the case is overstated. The current crisis, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is “far more than a blip, but less than a catastrophe.” According to O’Hanlon, the United States is consistently more popular in Afghanistan than elsewhere in the Islamic world. Betrayal by Afghan soldiers and officials is disturbing and damaging but not generalized or dramatically growing. Many Afghans fear a hurried U.S. departure far more than they resent America’s presence. And Karzai’s reaction to the Koran incident has been measured, particularly when compared with past tantrums.

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