Shadow Government

Obama's military problem is getting worse

By Peter Feaver

President Obama is presiding over a slow-motion civil-military crash occasioned by his meandering Afghanistan strategy review. The crash has not yet happened and is avoidable, but it also foreseeable. Of concern, the latest reports out of the White House suggest that Obama's team is not yet fully aware of the dangers. If it happens, it will be a problem entirely of Obama's own making and it could have a lasting impact on the way his administration unfolds.

As Rich Lowry has observed, President Obama rarely misses a chance to blame a challenge he is confronting on his predecessor. This rhetorical tic served Obama well during the campaign and probably still resonates with partisans who post anonymous comments on blogs or who suffer from chronic Bush Derangement Syndrome. But it gives the impression that the Administration never left the campaign bubble and may even encourage self-defeating campaign-like behavior such as picking feuds with news organizations.

And insofar as the Afghan strategy review goes, it is a narrative string that is thoroughly played out because the current civil-military problem confronting the Obama Administration is entirely of its own making. The problem is not that Afghanistan is a difficult combat theater, nor that Karzai is an inconvenient Afghan ally, nor even that President Obama is taking time to review his strategic options. All of that and more is true and, I suppose, some of it can be "blamed" on President Bush. The problem that cannot be blamed on Bush is that the way President Obama is reviewing his strategic options is generating needless civil-military friction and, unless the Obama team gets it under control, could generate a genuine civil-military crisis.

Tom Donnelly produced an extensive tick-tock of the evolving Obama Afghanistan policy that reads like the first draft of a "what went wrong" post-mortem.  For my money, the key developments were:

  • President Obama opts for a misleading straddle in rolling-out the results of his first Afghan strategy review in March. He oversells the extent to which the new strategy is a radical departure from his predecessor's, but more crucially oversells the extent to which he is committed to this strategy. And, like President Johnson in 1965 and unlike President Bush in 2007, he announces the low-ball estimate of new resources expected rather than the high-ball estimate.  Military audiences hear what they want to hear -- namely that the President is committed to resourcing the "new" COIN strategy --and do not hear what they do not want to hear -- namely that the President is reserving the option not to resource adequately the new strategy and, indeed, to change his mind about the strategy in a few months time.
  • Shortly after the roll-out, President Obama and his key White House team take their collective eye off the ball and are largely uninvolved in the firing of General McKiernan and the hiring of General McChrystal. Indeed, President Obama has only one substantive interaction with the battlefield commander of his most important "war of necessity" for the next four months.
  • The most meaningful senior White House engagement with the Afghanistan theater over the long summer of discontent is a remarkable late June trip that NSA Jim Jones takes and that amounts to an on-the-record politicization of military advice. As reported by Bob Woodward, Jones appears to tell the military commanders to shave their military advice in light of President Obama's reluctance to approve new troop deployments. This episode, I believe, is the key pivot point. Military observers draw two "so that's the way it's going to be" inferences:
    • (1) The Obama team is fully cooperating with Bob Woodward -- a tried and true Washington strategy because Woodward tends to treat more favorably people who have cooperated (i.e. shared information and access) than people who haven't.  Application: it is OK to cooperate with Bob Woodward.
    • (2) The Obama team is politicizing civil-military relations.  Application: play the game or you will get burned.
  • On 17 August, despite harboring serious misgivings about the Afghan mission -- and despite the accumulating evidence that the Afghan elections, a few days hence, will be riddled with fraud -- President Obama gives his most important speech since the March roll-out focusing on Afghanistan and uses the same rhetoric that he used on the campaign trail: Afghanistan is a war of necessity. Reasonable inference for military audience: The president is committed to fully resourcing this war.
  • A direct result of Jones's late June trip, I suspect, is that Bob Woodward is put on distribution for the McChrystal report and receives it shortly after McChrystal delivers it  to his (McChrystal's) chain of command in late August. However, because Woodward is in the book-writing business, he does not publish the scoop, holding it back for the book. (Many observers believe that Woodward's source was a military officer, but my own hunch is that it was someone from Holbrooke's staff. My conjecture is based largely on the fact that when the story does break, Woodward leaves Holbrooke entirely out of the story, a telling absence of the AfPak czar that makes more sense if one is protecting a source).
  • Throughout September, after the McChrystal report is delivered but before it is leaked, there start to be stories that indicate growing military frustration with the White House's lack of strategic focus on Afghanistan. The military apparently believe that President Obama is paralyzed with indecision. This is the context for Woodward going to his source and asking for permission to run the report as a news story rather than as a book scoop: the White House is trying to bury the McChrystal report by refusing to act or even debate it. The result is a real civil-military problem.
  • In response to the leak, the White House kicks into high damage-control mode (after a brief delay occasioned by the unfortunate timing of the UNGA meetings), but even here shows some  clumsiness, at least regarding civil-military optics: the 25 hours for the Olympics vs. 25 minutes for McChrystal optic, and the surprisingly prominent participation of the political team in what is supposed to be a national security review.  This coupled with numerous anonymous quotes attributed to senior Obama team members aimed at knocking McChrystal down a peg or two do more to roil than smooth the civil-military waters.
  • And then, most recently, a remarkable (and rare) public disagreement between Chief of Staff Emmanuel and Secretary of Defense Gates about whether the Obama team can wait to decide on the McChrystal request until after the fate of Afghan President Karzai is resolved.

In short, President Obama has been slowly veering off into a civil-military ditch of his own digging. Despite his relative inexperience in national security matters, this was not inevitable; during the campaign President Obama showed himself to be fairly deft rhetorically in regards to civil-military relations and he carried this strong performance through the first several months of his presidency. However, in recent months he has seemed far less at ease with his wartime Commander-in-Chief role.

If Obama regains a deft touch, the crash can be averted. To avert it he needs to do more than simply endorse the McChrystal request, though that would surely help. He needs to show that he respects the civil-military process, and he needs to rein in his advisors who have been stumbling about. If he is going to over-rule McChrystal, which is his right as a Commander-in-Chief, he will have a much steeper climb out of his civil-military hole. At a minimum, he will need to forthrightly take ownership of the war and all of its consequences and spend the political capital he has hitherto avoided spending on national security issues to explain his decision to the American people and the American military. Of course, while President Obama and his team bear the lion's share of the responsibility for the current civil-military friction, they cannot by themselves get out of the hole they have dug. The military will have to help by rigorously sticking to proper norms of civil-military relations. That means they must not counter-leak, not even to defend themselves from scurrilous attacks from unnamed White House staffers; seek redress quietly, within the system, and within the chain of command. They must avoid threatening President Obama with resignations in protest if he overrules their advice; such threats subvert the principle of civilian control which implies that civilians have a right to be wrong. And they must be prepared to do their utmost to implement Obama's chosen strategy as effectively as they can with whatever resources he puts at their disposal. If President Obama errs, it is up to the electorate to judge him, not the military.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

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