It is striking how closely the Obama administration is following the Iraq withdrawal playbook in Afghanistan. There are numerous and important differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but President Obama is making the exact same policy choices to "wind down" the war in Afghanistan that he made in Iraq. And in both cases, it amounts to writing off the war.
The Obama administration hasn't had a strategy in either war, it has had a military strategy. In both cases, that military strategy produced military gains; in both cases those military gains were ephemeral because advances were in no way supported by political or economic lines of operations to consolidate and capitalize on our military success. The State Department's grand plans for the transition to civilian activity in Iraq are in ashes. If there was a "civilian surge" in Afghanistan, it was completely ineffectual.
In both cases President Obama had a political strategy grounded in the belief that leaders in those countries would not make the politically difficult choices needed unless faced with the imminent end of our support. Thus the timeline-driven exit in both cases. In Iraq, it resulted in a mad scramble for political control: the stalemate over Parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Maliki using the apparatus of the state to punish political adversaries. That mad scramble has been underway in Afghanistan and the region since President Obama announced in December 2009 our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and most evident in the hedging choices of the government of Pakistan, without whose collaboration our strategy could not succeed.
In both cases President Obama doubted the efficacy of a surge of troops: on Iraq he insisted the surge couldn't work, on Afghanistan he set a time limit and reportedly told military commanders this was all they were getting. If they couldn't produce a victory in that time, he would wind down our involvement.
In both cases, President Obama publicly declaring our withdrawal created a political dynamic in which leaders had strong incentives to make us look pushed out; otherwise they would look abandoned, weakening them domestically. Thus Maliki's resistance to immunity for American soldiers; thus Karzai's cavalcade of anti-American statements and actions. Their resistance feeds into the president's belief that they are undeserving of our sacrifices, and best left to their own fates instead of coached and set up to be successful. President Karzai said after meeting President Obama that "numbers [of American troops] aren't going to make a difference in Afghanistan." Expect President Obama to give that theory a test.
In both cases, our exit bore no connection to achievement of our objectives. In Iraq the timeline was supposed to allow for a stable political transition. Manipulation by Maliki of the outcome of spring 2010 Parliamentary elections seized up politics in Iraq for a year and a half while our drawdown proceeded apace and Generals Odierno and Austin disavowed any connection between our withdrawal and political fracture. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration has trumpeted building security forces that can undertake the crucial work Americans have been doing. The December 2012 Pentagon report on Afghan security forces concluded that only 1 of 23 Afghan brigades can operate without our support. If achieving our objectives mattered to President Obama, that information should prompt a serious review of our timeline -- and extend it. Instead, he has accelerated our disengagement.
In both cases, the military advised more troops, more time, and broader objectives than the president accepted. It is the job of military leaders to provide the president their best military advice -- but warfare is a political undertaking, and the military cannot be expected to decide how much national effort to put toward the wars we are fighting. It is above their pay grade. We elect presidents to do that, and only they truly have the span of authority to make the trade offs between defending our country and other important endeavors. But that means blame for the outcome also belongs with the president and not the military leaders.
In both cases, President Obama instituted an end to military operations more than a year before the withdrawal of our military forces. In Iraq it was the August 2009 "end of combat operations;" on Friday, President Obama announced U.S. forces in Afghanistan would this spring limit themselves to supporting Afghan operations; by 2014 they will be limited to training Afghan forces. This effectively ends the practice of counterinsurgency. We will no longer protect Afghans, be dispersed throughout the country, or operate alongside Afghan military units. We're shrinking back onto a couple of large military bases that will protect us against attack ... and also against having an accurate intelligence picture to fuel those counterterrorist operations.
In both cases, President Obama has carried out the policies in slow motion, allowing months of news coverage about pending changes and options considered, such that when policies are implemented, they don't seem like news. Opponents have a harder time mobilizing support when there isn't an actual policy to counter, and by the time there is a policy, the public feels like they've heard this all before. It's the frog boiling strategy: make it happen slowly enough that we'll hardly notice.
Executing the Iraq playbook in Afghanistan will replicate the squandered Iraq gains in the war President Obama argued needed to be fought because he was "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" as it was not in Iraq. Does President Obama genuinely expect a different outcome? Does he no longer believe the dire stakes that prompted his Afghanistan surge are at issue? Does he believe achieving our objectives is not worth the price? Does he believe America can buffer itself against a chaotic and dangerous world? Does he believe the wars he has prosecuted as commander in chief are unwinnable? If so, why has he allowed them to exact the terrible toll of lives lost?
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I agree with Danielle Pletka that the Romney campaign was all over the map, and nowhere convincing, on foreign policy. But I disagree that the strategic circumstances necessitate Reaganesque stances on national security. Nor do I think that is a winnable argument for Republicans with the American public.
What the public wants ought not to be the sole determinant of our national security policies -- every conservative applauds Edmund Burke's insistence that he owed his constituency his judgment, not just his vote. But public opinion does matter in every democracy, and it matters especially for the United States because the main limit on our power is our willingness to use it.
My very strong sense is that voters don't want to hear it right now; they aren't amenable to our arguments for an assertive policy to advance our values in the world. We made that case too glibly in the Bush administration, and managed it too poorly, for voters -- even Republican voters -- to trust our judgment. We will have to earn our way back into their confidence.
Pletka makes passing, critical reference to Dwight Eisenhower's unwillingness to intervene in Hungary. And she's absolutely right that Eisenhower clamped down on advocates of rolling back Soviet expansion. He understood that 1950s voters still taking solace in a willful innocence after World War II, who elected him to end the Korean War, had no stomach for liberating Hungary. And, after all, the president is the person who ultimately has to decide how much to risk and pay for what we attempt in the world.
Public indifference to how the wars are concluded -- President Obama has paid no price that I can ascertain for ending rather than winning our wars -- suggests Americans are in about the same place now. Just as the Vietnam War cast a long shadow over American willingness to take an active role in refashioning the international order, Iraq and Afghanistan are casting their pall over public support for interventions very much in our strategic interest, like Syria or Iran.
We will miss lots of opportunities to shape the world in better ways as Americans turn inward. But we Republicans ought also to acknowledge that we squandered the public trust with rosy projections of the cost of the wars and colossal mismanagement for far too long. We delegitimized our own strategy and we are still paying the price for it. President Obama's fecklessness in Iraq and Afghanistan has only added a general skepticism that wars as we now fight them are winnable at all.
It will not be enough for Republicans to argue that we know the right thing to do. We will need to demonstrate we know how to achieve it, and at a price the American people are willing to pay. I suspect it will take another decade of absorbing the consequences of allowing the world to grow more dangerous before Americans would be willing to consider another war on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan. We delay rather than hasten that time by advocating a Reaganesque assertiveness rather than an Eisenhower restraint.
Kori Schake is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate professor at the U.S. Military Academy.
The president is closing in on announcing a new defense secretary and birds of prey are fighting over the candidacy of Senator Chuck Hagel, while people close to the president complain that there are no good candidates and Dems fear the president is undercutting their newfound respectability with defense voters by returning the Defense Department to Republican hands. But the president's priorities argue for a technically proficient executive that can intimidate the Department into compliance and the Congress into restraining spending and hobby horses -- a description neither Hagel nor the other preferred candidates fit.
If the president is simply looking to put the Pentagon into the hands of someone who shares his views on foreign policy, Chuck Hagel would achieve that aim, and with the sublime collateral damage of continuing Republican feuding. But it is unlikely to buy the White House congressional support on defense policy -- and that's crucial, given what the White House actually wants to achieve in the coming four years.
The national security community has a penchant for defense intellectuals, meaning people who work in DOD or NSC or think tank jobs creating and evaluating government policy. We are ennobled with the title "strategists." But very few of us are actually ever trained for or called on to match objectives to means. Just one small indicator is the paucity of defense experts who know anything about budgeting or think about the defense budget in the context of cost-effectiveness in spending -- its absence ought to be a disqualifying factor.
Moreover, the president doesn't need a defense strategy. Like it or not, he has one: winding down the wars and minimizing foreign entanglements, killing suspected terrorists by remote means, and training the military forces of other countries to handle their own problems. It is consistent with his broader national security strategy of investing in American domestic strength and rebalancing spending away from defense. If the president's strategy were actually implemented by the Defense Department, it would mean a genuinely revolutionary reduction in DOD spending and redistribution of spending among the military services, greatly to the advantage of the Navy and detriment of the active-duty Army.
But the president probably isn't going to force that revolution on the Pentagon. A hue and cry much greater than that which followed Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "transformation" would ensue (recall that the Rumsfeld revolution was achieved, to the extent to which it was achieved, by continuing to do almost everything the Services wanted while also increasing spending for "transformational" equipment and activities). Mostly what the president wants is all quiet on the defense front while he fights other battles, and that means a secretary of defense who can cut defense spending by at least $25 billion a year without a rebellion from either Congress or the military or activist groups like MOAA while also hedging against a catastrophic breakthrough in military capabilities by our potential adversaries.
If the trial balloon on Hagel is deemed insufficiently ascendant, the White House seems to have narrowed its fallback plan to two veterans of the Obama Pentagon, either Michele Flournoy or Ashton Carter.
Michele Flournoy is a genuinely wonderful human being. But her main achievements in defense policy are giving the president political cover for the "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq and keeping the Pentagon busy with a Quadrennial Defense Review that wasn't matched by Secretary Robert Gates' budget and has been repudiated by Secretary Leon Panetta's Strategic Guidance. Being a woman and holding a job ought not to count as an achievement.
Ashton Carter is a genuine defense intellectual -- a physicist and tenured professor of government at Harvard. He has the advantage of actually understanding the technologies in sophisticated weapons systems, did a solid job as the AT&L -- Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, the mainstay business of running DOD -- and was a favorite of that superb former defense secretary, Bill Perry. He is the best choice if the White House is choosing from within the administration. He too has proved largely unpersuasive on Capitol Hill, however.
The pool of talent is so much larger than the White House is giving itself credit for. They have set implicit constraining criteria that narrow the field to people who've held defense jobs and are already known/trusted by the president. But the president needs a rainmaker, someone who will be so respected within the building that he or she can make substantial spending reductions and command the respect of a majority of Congress while running a $600-billion-a-year business. The White House would do well to relax its constraints and consider the following six potential secretaries:
Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford. Running the only Big Three car company that didn't take a bailout should endear him to conservatives. He successfully negotiated unions to reduced labor costs with a finesse that will be essential to reining in military entitlement programs, and he sold off nostalgia brands that no longer made sense for the company (take heed, manned fighter platforms). He's an aeronautical engineer with a business degree from MIT, and he knows the defense business, having run Boeing. Putting the man who returned Ford to profitability by cutting costs in charge of the Pentagon in a time of austerity gives the secretary the advantage of arguing he knows how to do something the defense experts and military do not.
Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary for acquisition and technology under Secretary Perry. He has advanced degrees in aeronautics and astronautics from both MIT and Stanford, a military career distinguished by pushing forward technological innovations, and private-sector work experience in high-tech companies. He wrote a hugely perceptive study of emergent technologies, arguing for changes in our export controls that would allow us to capitalize on the work of foreign companies in crucial sectors of the next generation of innovations. If anyone can fix our procurement system and throw the red flag on underperforming or ill-aligned programs, it's Kaminski.
Warren Buffett, head of Berkshire Hathaway. We have done too little value investing in defense and we are slow to identify the enemy's advantages and minimize our long-term vulnerabilities. His letters to investors are masterpieces of educating your raters, which portends well for managing Congress. Picking winners is the Sage of Omaha's genius, which could be an enormous advantage when turned on the defense industry, emergent technologies, wars, and military leadership; Napoleon promoted his generals by that criteria. And God knows the president owes Buffett.
John Hamre, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and current chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Hamre is a Republican from South Dakota who was deputy secretary in the Clinton Administration. He is a superb intellect who dispenses difficult ideas with the grace of a genial Lutheran pastor handing tuna casserole around -- and he comes by it honestly, since he studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to receiving a PhD from SAIS. Hamre was also ruthlessly effective as comptroller in "cutting off the oxygen" to those who wouldn't implement the secretary's priorities while still acting as a generous mentor to a legion of young government officials. He has Capitol Hill chops not only from a decade as a SASC staffer but also from the Congressional Budget Office.
Charles O'Reilly, professor of management at the Stanford School of Business. An expert on organizational renewal (with a BS in chemistry), he literally wrote the book on why successful organizations fail to innovate, which would be a hugely important perspective to bring to today's Pentagon. He advises companies on how to foster disruptive innovation and contributed to James Wolfensohn's efforts to do just that at the World Bank. A former soldier and great team-builder, his book Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) ought to be required reading for defense experts and would be the basis for DOD's rethinking of how to execute its missions in new ways.
Susana Martinez, governor of New Mexico. A rising star among conservatives, she's a tough former district attorney who could command respect within the building even though defense would be a new portfolio. Being a governor is actually better preparation for defense secretary (and many other managerial jobs) than being in Congress. She would bring a border perspective to challenge the "foreign wars" perspective of our defense establishment, which may lead to better integration of homeland security and defense, a long overdue synthesis. She grew up a Democrat and could therefore be emblematic of the center of our politics, and would buy the administration a defender of their policies who is respected among conservatives. And why not make the advocates of small government take a meat axe to their favorite government program? It would help Republicans too by showcasing on a national level the executive abilities of a potential presidential candidate.
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Amid the furor over the attack on our U.S. consulate and the death of four Americans serving in Libya, Secretary Hillary Clinton convened an internal State Department review -- and that Accountability Review Board has just released its report. Clinton has cannily already said she will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. Unfortunately, even doing so will not solve the problems that occurred in Benghazi.
The New York Times describes the report as sharply critical, but it is not. While acknowledging that "there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity," and "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels," the report concludes that the solution lies in more money with fewer congressional strings attached. Yet when Congress has given State money and allowed it latitude to program those resources, this has not resulted in an adequate supply of expert diplomats to high-risk postings or adequate security for our diplomats operating in those postings.
The report contains all the well-known State Department refrains: The world is newly complicated, diplomacy is underfunded, Congress must change its approach. Here's the medley of greatest hits, in language from the report itself:
"the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before ... for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work ... it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security ... [any] solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs ... the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges."
What the State Department does not acknowledge -- but what is at the core of its institutional failures -- is that it sets priorities, and that those priorities have not adequately changed with the changing needs of American diplomacy or the changing demands of security for our diplomats. Since 9/11, funding for the State Department and USAID has increased by 155 percent and the size of the Foreign Service has doubled, yet State has chosen to channel its increased resources to the functions the institution values more than diplomatic security. There is not even a mandatory training program for diplomats being assigned to high-risk posts.
Prior to the Benghazi attacks, State's advocates complained that post-9/11 funding increases had been predominantly in consular and diplomatic security rather than in new staff for multilateral organizations, international law, economics, science and technology, public/private partnerships, and international organizations. By which they meant that the terrorist attacks on the United States should have resulted in more involvement in activities to which State is already optimized, rather than in increasing security for embassies and screening people applying for visas even though those are critical vulnerabilities highlighted by attacks on American embassies in the past 15 years. The report just released uses this opportunity to argue for more language training; it offers insight into the institutional culture of an organization that begrudges security at the expense of additional staff to do what the department is already doing.
The report's top recommendation is that "the Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas." The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called for the same thing; yet in the two years since the QDDR was released, State has not developed such a risk model nor expended institutional effort in building consensus with the executive and with Congress. Having our diplomats actively engaged in dangerous circumstances -- as Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya and Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria have been -- is essential. If our diplomats remain bastioned inside our embassies, they could just as well perform their functions from Ohio as from Libya. But State has not made solving this problem a priority.
The report's second recommendation is to applaud State for having already created "a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts." Its third is more personnel for assistant secretaries in Washington. This is deeply discouraging, because it reinforces State's tendency to believe that more money and more high-level positions are the solution, rather than clarifying accountability. The report states that "among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations." Yet, with its advocacy of external threat evaluators, increased staffing in Washington, and "multi-bureau support cells," it does not make recommendations for resolving that irresponsibility.
In one crucial way, the system worked in Libya: the ambassador-in-country determined whether the mission justified the risks. Ambassador Stevens undertook an extraordinary set of risks traveling to Benghazi, given the problems the report explains with local security forces. State allowed Benghazi to become "a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." The report acknowledges similar security problems and proposed solutions have been extant since 1999. The tragedy of Benghazi is that, once again, State has proven itself incapable of arraying the institution to support the terrific individuals serving on the front lines of American diplomacy.
The problems identified in the report are systemic problems, and fixing them is almost wholly within State's existing authorities. As Congress explores the Benghazi debacle, it ought to force State to look clearly at the deficiencies of its institutional culture, and align incentives to correct them. The questions State should be pressed to answer are: Why have you not fixed these problems before now? How can you make us confident you will fix them going forward?
The Senate's war hawks, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, are giving voice to their concerns that the Obama administration is about to repeat in Afghanistan the policy choices that squandered the national security gains and political influence bought with blood in Iraq. All three are making direct parallels between the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Graham cautioned "Iraq is falling apart. Political progress has stopped, al Qaeda is beginning to remerge. What you see in Iraq is going to happen in Afghanistan if we do not have a post-2014 presence."
Ostensible secretary of defense candidate Senator Jack Reed told reporters yesterday that such criticism was "comparing apples and oranges." His rationale? "Reed noted that botched withdrawal from Iraq was set in motion by the Bush administration, and said President Obama is intent on not making the same mistakes in Afghanistan." There is evidently no statute of limitations beyond which this Administration will take responsibility for its own choices -- even when the president actually campaigned on the policy choices Senator Reed is saying are the fault of their predecessor.
All of the significant choices about the end of the war in Iraq were made by the Obama administration:
The result? An authoritarian Iraqi government turning the military we built against its domestic rivals, aligning itself with Iran and excusing the depredations of the Assad government against its own people.
And the Obama administration appears poised to make the exact same set of choices in Afghanistan. The President conveyed early that he cared about the timeline, not the objectives of the war, leading all affected parties to hedge against us. President Obama chose not to draw attention to the malfeasance of the 2009 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power, instead over-investing in the incumbent. President Obama cared less about risk -- either to our forces or to achievement of the objectives for which they were fighting -- than about diversion from "nation building here at home," evidenced by his limits on resources requested by commanders. His diplomats never were able to deliver on either of our strategy's seminal political objectives: Pakistani cooperation and Afghan governance. His administration promised a "civilian surge" that never materialized. His administration sprayed money ineffectually through aid programs uncoordinated with our strategy's objectives and inadequately supervised to prevent colossal corruption (the Special Inspector General's report should infuriate every American taxpayer). His exit strategy was contingent on Afghan security forces being able to undertake the fight, yet the fact that only one of 23 Afghan brigades are capable of independent operations has not affected either the timeline of our withdrawal or the size of the force that would remain in the country. And now the Obama administration is negotiating a long-term stationing agreement that would consolidate around 6,000 U.S. forces at a single base outside Kabul to conduct raids throughout the country and train small numbers of Afghan security forces. But the Karzai government seems unlikely to allow U.S. forces to retain immunity, likely considering himself better off if he appears to force our retrenchment than simply be the victim of it.
Why would President Obama repeat the mistakes of Iraq in Afghanistan? The saddest and likely truest answer is that he doesn't consider them mistakes. Small wonder parties to the conflict have been positioning themselves against U.S. abandonment of our allies and our objectives in Afghanistan.
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Conservatives need to face it squarely: We lost the argument. Voters gave us a hearing, gave us the opportunity to make our case, then decided they didn't trust us to solve their problems any more than they did a president who passed legislation they didn't like, by means they didn't approve of, behaved recklessly with the nation's finances, and seemed uninterested in working with the opposition. We need to take ownership of losing the argument rather than taking refuge in excuses or despairing for the future.
Foreign policy was not the fulcrum of this election, but it did matter, and in ways that helped President Obama. Governor Romney is a pragmatic, problem-solving politician who failed to believe he could be elected as one, and adopted an amalgam of policies to cast him in Ronald Reagan's mold. But amidst the mythologizing of Reagan on the right, we ought to consider whether Reagan's national security stance would make sense in our current conditions: When our defense budget is half the world's total, when an actual peer able to contest American primacy is fifteen or twenty years in the future, when our people are weary of all we've undertaken and discouraged at how little help other countries have been, when our economy is shaky and its recovery slow and household incomes pinched, when we are poised to ask Americans worried about the future to receive less from government retirement and medical programs.
Conservatives talk an awful lot about the public losing its commitment to defense spending, and Governor Romney outlined an increase to 4 percent of GDP even as government spending contracts, while the president kept repeating the importance of nation building at home. We ought perhaps to consider that our taxpayers simply aren't persuaded by our arguments that the world is so dangerous or our defense spending too low. Looking at what we have spent across the past decade, and the cost-exchange ratio we are experiencing with our enemies, they may not be wrong. Voters are worried about the state of our union, appear willing to accept near-term risk in national security in order to gain more near-term confidence in our domestic security. It's not an irresponsible choice, given how wide our margin for error is on national security issues and the multiplicity of means beyond military we have to affect them.
The president more accurately read the public mood about the wars than conservatives, too. We Republicans are savagely and rightly critical of President Obama's handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But voters don't want to hear it from the people who lost the Iraq and Afghanistan wars the first time, even if we righted the ship on Iraq. The cost of our mistakes remains fresh in the public mind, and Team Obama got lots of mileage off the trope about returning to office the same people who made the mistakes in the first place. Maybe if we sounded less strident about going to war they would trust our judgment more; but maybe our credibility problem will persist until all of us with connections to the Bush administration are purged from the rolls of future administrations.
We can celebrate that we have won half the argument about the direction of our country: we have pushed debt into the center of political discourse. Voters are worried about our national insolvency, understand it is constraining our ability to fix our problems and sure to lead to even worse problems unless we take corrective action. But we were implausible in our policies. We insisted defense must increase and emphasized growing dangers that will demand more wars. We railed about the Obama administration's defense cuts when our alternative in the House included the same reductions. We criticized the president for not embracing Bowles-Simpson but didn't vote for it ourselves. After arguing debt's centrality, we flatly rejected deals that would have a ten to one cuts to spending ratio. We sounded unsympathetic to our fellow Americans receiving government assistance. Voters considered us right in our descriptions, but reckless or mean in our prescriptions. Perhaps we ought to return to the idea of compassionate conservatism as we frame and argue for our policies. We need more Paul Ryan, not less: Details and principles did get traction, but we didn't have the consistency across our policies to build voters' confidence.
One of the most grevious mistakes of the Bush administration was to assert by executive order what could have been achieved legislatively; it made solutions more brittle and less enduring not to reach for broad public support. In some senses, it feels like we conservatives may be making a similar mistake of asserting what we believe should be done on national security issues instead of listening more to what limits our public wants to place on what we will do and negotiating solutions that don't overwhelm voters.
I urge caution on our Democratic opponents: You ought to be worried that with all its problems, the Republican party captured 48 percent of voters nationwide. And you ought to remind yourselves that every single member of the House of Representatives just got reelected, too; the president isn't the only politician returned to office. That's not a mandate, it's an invitation to compromise.
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Shakespeare's Hamlet features a self-absorbed protagonist who confuses oratory for action and hesitates to shoulder his responsibility. Despite the obvious similarities to the protagonist of the Obama administration, the president and his campaign have engaged in a fresh, unexpected casting of the current performance: one in which the president is not Hamlet, but Ophelia. An administration that set a new and debased standard for politicizing national security is protesting against the politicizing of national security.
The White House is clearly feeling heat over their handling of the attack on our consulate in Libya. When challenged about it in the second debate, President Obama scolded Governor Romney that "you don't turn national security into a political issue." This was clearly a rehearsed rather than a spontaneous response, since Vice President Biden reiterated the charge yesterday, saying "it became so clear to the American people how Governor Romney and the campaign continue to try to politicize a tragedy." This would be the same Joe Biden that during his debate blamed both the intelligence community and the State Department of not doing their jobs in order to shield the White House from blame.
I share Peggy Noonan's view that the Romney campaign was too quick to criticize the administration when the attack in Libya occurred; it did feel like a moment for grieving the dead Americans, and it would have been graceful (and politically expedient, given the efforts to paint Romney as unfeeling) to have held off a day or two before prosecuting the administration's national security failings.
But the Romney campaign is not wrong to press the issue now. The White House made a choice to connect what occurred in Libya with protests elsewhere in the Middle East rather than connect it to increasing jihadist activity in Libya. The argument that al Qaeda is on the ropes and the tide of war is receding is much less persuasive when al Qaeda affiliates are attacking American consulates and killing American diplomats in friendly countries. Osama bin Laden being dead may turn out to be less significant than the White House has been claiming. The Obama administration persisted in attributing the attack in Benghazi to an anti-Muslim video long after evidence had called that explanation into doubt, which increases suspicion they made a politically expedient choice.
Moreover, this is the same administration that sent its national security advisor to Afghanistan to tell the commanders not to ask for more Marines. It is the same administration that set a politically-driven timeline for withdrawing surge forces from Afghanistan. It is the same administration that complained to journalists that the military was trying to "box the president in" during the Afghanistan review -- a very serious charge against the professionalism of our military. It is the same administration that excoriated its predecessor for under-resourcing the war in Afghanistan while it declined to provide the military either the troops or the time they said would be needed to win the war. It is the same administration that claims this president is uniquely courageous to have approved the raid on Osama bin Laden. It is the same administration that leaked highly classified information to try and portray the president as a decisive commander in chief. It is the same administration that is using the Joint Chiefs of Staff as political pawns by insisting they want no more money or weapons -- and banking on their professionalism not to call their commander in chief a liar. It is the same administration that has threatened to veto any reduction in the sequestration defense cuts -- cuts that Secretary Panetta and all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said will be devastating to our military power.
President Obama's sanctimonious protestations that his opponent is politicizing national security is a marvelous acting job -- that he can even get the words out with a straight face is a tribute to either thespian excellence or self-delusion. It's almost funny to watch the political actor that has done the most to politicize national security solemnly intoning against doing so. But Hamlet is a tragedy, not a comedy; and the president attempting to deflect criticism of his choices about the attacks in Libya by cloaking himself in righteousness is way beyond the pale.
Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has cast himself as the arbiter of military conduct and guardian of the military's prerogative to remain outside America's bruising political battles. He has said, "one of the things that marks us as a profession in a democracy -- in our form of democracy -- that's most important is that we remain apolitical." More than just staking out the high ground, he has chosen to police it, objecting to retired veterans criticizing the president.
Gen. Dempsey also rebuked Congressman Ryan during budget season for suggesting the military leadership had concerns about President Obama's new goal post of another $400 billion in cuts to free up money for domestic spending. Gen. Dempsey turned up the volume in that exchange, invoking his impugned honor that Ryan would "collectively call us liars."
Which is why it is so odd that Gen. Dempsey has not held the president to the same standard. On several recent occasions, President Obama has asserted that his Republican challenger for president would force on our military money and weapons they don't want.
In his convention speech -- an overtly political occasion -- President Obama said, "my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don't even want." No reaction from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During last night's presidential debate -- another overtly political occasion -- the president twice insisted Governor Romney was peddling "$2 trillion in additional military spending that the military isn't asking for."
Really? No one in the American military believes defense spending should be higher than the president's FY2013 budget request? The president of the United States was misrepresenting the views of many in our military, counting on their professional reserve to remain silent while he uses their credibility with the public for political advantage in an election. How does that not count as politicizing our military?
The Budget Control Act would cut $50 billion a year for the next ten years from DOD's budget, something Gen. Dempsey has said would be a disaster of such proportions that the United States "wouldn't be the global power that we know ourselves to be today." Most of my military colleagues are concerned about the gap between demands and resources, and most believe the defense budget should not be further cut. Some believe near-term risk should be accepted in the military realm in order to solve the much larger vulnerability of our national debt; others believe civilians are asking the military to make yet more sacrifices so that politicians don't have to face up to the hard choices of entitlement reform. Which is to say that our military is not of one view on practically any subject, even those that touch on the center of their professional judgment.
To be fair, Gen. Dempsey is in an awkward position, caught between the commander in chief playing politics and the desire to stay out of the political mud-slinging. And this is a thin-skinned and stridently political president who it may be difficult to remain effective as the senior military advisor to if Obama takes umbrage at being corrected (which he surely will). But Gen. Dempsey has put himself in that position with his forceful interventions on the issue previously. Other generals have labored under no lesser burdens.
I'm very much in favor of our military staying out of politics; but if Gen. Dempsey is going to set himself up as the arbiter of the civil-military boundary, he needs to actually police both sides of it. And that means correcting the record when the president misleads the public or caricatures our military as having only one view about an important national issue that goes directly to their military judgment.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.