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

Shadow Government

Why Obama needs to play his cards right with India

By Daniel Twining

What should we make of the kerfuffle over the Indian Prime Minister's state visit to Washington today? Manmohan Singh's summit with President Obama, scheduled in part to offset the president's unfortunate decision not to visit India on his first Asian tour, has been plagued by disappointment in Delhi. India does not enjoy the pride of place in America's foreign policy agenda granted it by President Bush and even by President Clinton in the last years of his administration. Why not?

This U.S. administration, unlike its predecessor, appears to disfavor values-based cooperation as an organizing principle of American foreign policy, diminishing policymakers' appreciation of India as the world's largest democracy and subjecting cooperation with both India and China to an unsentimental cost-benefit calculation as to whether Asia's largest democracy or soon-to-be-largest economy should be Washington's privileged partner on any given issue. Yet this interest-based calculus itself reflects a misreading of the many congruent national objectives and ambitions between Washington and New Delhi. Even an Obama-esque judgment of American interests over the coming decade -- one that is cool, hard-headed, and dispassionate -- argues in favor of elevating India to the top tier of American partners in Asia and the world.

Let's briefly, and unsentimentally, review the main facts and trends. The CIA has labeled India the key "swing state" in international politics. It predicted some years ago that India would emerge by 2015 as the fourth most important power in the international system. Goldman Sachs predicts that, within just a few decades, the world's largest economies will be China, the United States, India, and Japan, in that order.

The United States has an enormous stake in the emergence of a rich, confident, democratic India that shares American ambitions to manage Chinese power, protect Indian Ocean sea lanes, safeguard an open international economy, stabilize a volatile region encompassing the heartland of jihadist extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and constructively manage challenges of proliferation, climate change, and other global issues. And even by purely material standards of market access and national security, the United States has a definitive interest in investing in India's success to prove to all those enamored of the Chinese model of authoritarian development that democracy is the firmest foundation for the achievement of humankind's most basic aspirations.

India possesses the world's second fastest-growing major economy and has defined a compelling interest in preserving the gains from globalization by liberalizing international flows of trade, investment, services, and human capital. India's rapidly expanding middle class, currently the size of the entire U.S. population, is expected to constitute 60 percent of its billion-plus population by 2020. Domestic consumption constitutes two-thirds of India's GDP but well under half of China's, giving it a more sustainable, less export-dependent economic foundation for growth. While India's 400-milllion strong labor force today is only half that of China, by 2025 those figures will reverse as China's population "falls off a demographic cliff," in the words of the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, with dramatic implications for India's economic development. India is expected to bypass Japan in the 2020s as the world's third-largest economy, and to bypass China in the early 2030s as the world's most populous country.

India is the kind of revisionist power with an exceptional self-regard that America was over a century ago. America's rise to world power in the 19th and 20th centuries is, in some respects, a model for India's own (peaceful) ambitions, partly because both define their exceptionalism with reference to their open societies. As Indian analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it, Indians have "great admiration for U.S. power" and want their country to "replicate" rather than oppose it. How many strategists -- in China or among Washington's European allies -- share such sentiments?

So let's put to bed the myth that America has more in common with China, or Washington needs Beijing's interest-based cooperation more than New Delhi's, on issues as diverse as Afghanistan and Pakistan (both countries in India's backyard whose destabilization hits India first and hardest), terrorism (which has killed more Indian civilians than those of any other nation not at war), the international economy (whose primary structural imbalance results from China's manipulation of its currency and the trade distortions that result from it), nonproliferation (China actively assisted another state, Pakistan, in developing its nuclear arsenal, which India has never done), energy security (the basis for the unprecedented Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear partnership as well as for greater Indo-U.S. naval cooperation), space (where the countries' ambitions and technology-trade arrangements argue for expanded joint cooperation), and even the difficult issue of climate change (which is predicted to hit India harder than any other major Asian economy).

It goes without saying that Indo-U.S. cooperation promises to reshape the Asian balance of power in ways that conduce to America's hard security interests. As Singaporean elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew has cogently asked, why is no one in the Asia Pacific fearful of India's rise even as they quietly shudder at the implications for their autonomy and security of a future Chinese superpower?

President Obama would do well to ponder that question today as he sits down with Prime Minister Singh to sketch out what we must hope is an ambitious and sustained agenda for expansive Indo-U.S. cooperation over the coming years.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images