Shadow Government

Lessons for the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 Roll-out

By Peter Feaver

Our sister blog, The Cable, reads the tea leaves and has concluded that President Obama has made his decision on Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and is preparing for a roll-out sometime around the 19th or 20th of November. Senior officials are clearing their schedules, giving heads-up to allies, and generally girding their loins for a major public relations push. But a push for what?

McClatchey reports that, as expected, the president will split the difference between his warring advisors. He will embrace the counterinsurgency approach recommended by General McChrystal and other military advisors. He will reject the narrower approach favored by Vice President Biden and other political advisors. But he will not authorize the upper-bound of military resources McChrystal requested. If the McClatchey report is accurate, the final choice comes close to resembling the option dubbed "McChrystal light," but probably not light enough to avoid a political battle with the anti-war faction at home.

As slow and painful as the review process has been, the hard part is just beginning and the Obama team seems fully aware of this. According to the McClatchey report:

Administration officials also want time to launch a public relations offensive to convince an increasingly skeptical public and a wary Democratic Congress -- which must agree to fund the administration's plan -- that the war, now in its ninth year and inflicting rising casualties, is one of "necessity," as Obama said earlier this year.

"This is not going to be an easy sell, especially with the fight over health care and the (Democratic) party's losses" of the governors' mansions in New Jersey and Virginia last week, said one official.

Persuading the public to support his new strategy will be hard, and the clumsy review process has made it harder.  But it is not impossible.  President Bush faced far more daunting political odds in January 2007 when he opted for the Iraq surge. Some of the lessons the Bush team learned could be of value to the Obama team as they plan their roll-out:

  • The media will focus on the numbers, but the President should focus on explaining the strategy and demonstrating his commitment to seeing it through because the numbers are likely to change. President Bush opted for the upper-most bound of the recommended surge of troops -- 5 Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) -- and yet when General Petraeus took over, he actually requested additional troops beyond those. Because Bush never publicly discussed the 5 BCT surge as the "uppermost bound," he could finesse these additional requests without triggering whole new "surge debates" each time. Obama should be careful not to paint this as the "last and final time we will send additional troops." That may be his fervent hope, but he should not handcuff himself to a hope.
  • The president will need a convincing answer for why he is authorizing a smaller surge than McChrystal requested. It is the president's call to make, but the experience of the Iraq war is a painful one in this regard. Secretary Rumsfeld still faces scathing criticism for trimming the troop requests of the original invasion -- for appearing to have authorized a bit less than needed rather than a bit more than was required. Obama must persuade the public not to view him as a latter-day Rumsfeld.
  • The president and his political appointees, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State, should carry the lion's share of the political water in persuading Congress and the American public. But they cannot do it alone, because polls indicate that the public trusts the military far more than the president to "make the major decisions on overall military strategy and the number of troops needed" -- by a whopping 62-25 percent spread. That means that Obama will need General McChrystal to validate publicly Obama's decision, just as General Petraeus validated publicly Bush's surge decision. The Obama team must be ready to call the critics to account if the anti-war faction attempts to smear McChrystal the way they tried to smear Petraeus. As much as possible, the generals should be left to focus on the military fight and kept out of the political fight.
  • The president should spend the political capital to preserve bipartisan support for the new strategy. Unfortunately, support for the Iraq surge came down to the slimmest of Republican-only margins (plus Senator Lieberman). Here Obama has a decided advantage and he should exploit it. Republicans are far more committed to a robust approach in Afghanistan than were Democrats in Iraq and Obama could bring them on board. To do so, he should drop the partisan trashing of the previous administration and finally deliver on his campaign promise to seek a genuine partnership with Republicans. On this issue, he will need robust support from the center and the right and he should take the requisite steps to secure it.
  • The president will have to accept the unfairness of the media, which will scrutinize his proposal with excruciating rigor while giving a breezy pass to the alternative strategies promoted by his critics. The media never rigorously evaluated the proposals of the Iraq surge critics and so the political debate over the surge was never on a level playing field.  President Obama and his team should expect the same kind of treatment, and indeed may be facing the same chorus of critics. The opponents of the old Iraq surge are girding their loins to fight a new Afghan surge. The Obama team must do more than simply whine about it. Instead, they must take upon themselves responsibility for explaining the myriad problems with off-shore counter-terrorism, McChrystal Super Light, or any of the other alternatives that arm-chair generals promote. By and large, the watchdog media will likely give the critics a free pass.

Of course, the most important lesson is the most obvious one: pick the right strategy. President Bush was able to prevail politically over the surge opponents because, at the end of the day, the surge produced dramatic results on the ground. Had the surge not reversed the trajectory in Iraq, then no amount of domestic political resolve could have saved it.

If President Obama's choice is a similarly wise one, and if he devotes the concentrated effort to explaining his choice to a skeptical Congress and American public, Obama can reverse his Afghan slide. If not, our wartime Commander-in-Chief will face even more daunting decisions down the road.

NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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