Shadow Government

The plan for Afghanistan: Will Obama finally embrace his inner commander in chief?

By Peter Feaver

I am still thinking about President Obama coming to terms with being commander in chief. The roll-out of his decision on Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 will tell us a great deal about whether he is embracing the role or still struggling with it.

After a clumsily run review process, there are finally some hopeful signs in this regard. For starters, he has evidently opted for a high profile roll-out, a prime time Address to the Nation on a day (Tuesday) that will give him maximum attention, rather than throwing a press release over the transom on the margins of Black Friday, as he has done with other difficult presidential decisions. Moreover his team will follow up with long-delayed testimony from General McChrystal, the very person skeptical audiences will want to hear from to validate whether the new strategy has good prospects for success (General Petraeus should also testify and I expect he will). But -- and this is yet another good sign -- the Obama Team also seems to be indicating that they will demand that the other cabinet officials shoulder the load of explaining the war to the American people and to Congress. After nearly 8 months of relative absence, it is high time the administration took seriously its obligation to explain the war and mobilize public and political support for it.

All in all, some hopeful tea leaves. So how will we know whether Obama really is rising to the occasion and embracing his inner commander in chief?   

Here would be some signs that he has embraced the role:

  • His follow-through on messaging is sustained and vigorous (and matched by a similar on-message effort by the senior White House staff and cabinet-level officials).
  • He reaches out to Republicans, thanking them for their commitment to the war effort and promising to work with them. (If he really wants to show self-confidence, he might even say some kind words about President Bush and his courage as a war-time leader, but it is perhaps unreasonable to expect such a transcendently classy gesture at this stage.)
  • He and his team describe the Afghan effort as a war to be won.
  • He and his team sketch a vision of "success" in terms of achievable objectives. Any discussion of an "exit strategy" is similarly framed in terms of mission success.  
  • He and his team describe the American (and allied) troops who are fighting as heroes who are fighting to defend our freedoms against malevolent enemies that really do seek to do us harm.  
  • He thanks our troops as well as our allies, including our Afghan allies, for the sacrifices they are making and he promises them that on his watch he will do everything necessary to see that those sacrifices will be redeemed by seeing the war through to a successful conclusion.
  • He levels with the American people about the costly road ahead, but explains why alternatives would be even costlier.

And here would be some signs that he is still struggling:

  • The generals end up shouldering a disproportionate amount of the PR and congressional outreach load.
  • He ignores Republicans and complains about how all of these problems are the fault of you-know-who and "8 years of drift."
  • He and his team describe the Afghan effort as a burden to be ended.
  • He and his team avoid words like success, victory, and win, replacing them with "exit strategy," "ending," and "withdrawal."  Success/victory/winning is defined as "U.S. troops leave."
  • He and his team describe American and allied troops as victims, and he describes Afghanistan as a place where people have been killing each other for years (or decades, or centuries) and so there really are no good guys or bad guys in this fight.
  • He thanks the troops but makes no promises that he will see the mission through to success. Instead, he simply promises them that a grateful nation will give them and their families a lavish array of veterans benefits once they come home.
  • He tells Americans that they can have security on the cheap, and, in fact, they will be safer and more secure if only they leave Afghanistan as soon as possible.

President Bush was not a perfect communicator in chief when it came to explaining the war on terror. But one thing that I suspect every American, even or perhaps especially those who opposed him, understood: Bush believed that the wars he was leading were worth winning and he was willing to sacrifice the things that were his to sacrifice (things like political and public popularity) so that America could prevail in them. In other words: He embraced his unexpected role as commander in chief and ranked that above his other assignments.

We will soon see if President Obama does, too.

P.S.: I don't care if he uses the word "success" or "victory" or "win" -- those terms are synonymous to me and I don't put much credence in the cottage industry that counts the number of times "victory" is mentioned vice "success" -- there is, however, a profound difference between success/victory and merely "ending the war."

MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images

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