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

Shadow Government

A great day for Iraq, less so for the United States

By Kori Schake

The Iraqi Parliament has passed a law that will allow elections to proceed in January, and on terms that will make Iraqi politicians more accountable to Iraqi voters and foster continued stabilization of the Iraqi political landscape. This is a huge step forward in the democratization of Iraq; what a pity our own government sees it largely in terms of facilitating our withdrawal from the country.

The United Nations had said last Thursday was the deadline for a law to be passed if elections were to remain on schedule. Many Iraq watchers feared once the deadline had been breached, no law would be forthcoming and elections indefinitely postponed. Some even argued Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was seeking to derail an election law to remain in power in a "soft coup."  But the Parliament acted and Faraj al-Haidari, the head of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, has now confirmed to the Associated Press that the election will be held within a week of the original Jan. 16 date (the Constitution requires only that national elections be held in January).

Two thorny issues required solutions before the law could be passed: how to account for changing demographics in Kirkuk, and whether voters would cast ballots for parties or individuals. Both came to solutions that strengthen democracy in Iraq.

Kirkuk is a northern city from which Kurdish residents were purged during Saddam Hussein's rule. They have returned in large numbers since. Kurdish leaders explain the influx as displaced people returning to their homes.  Others, especially local Turkmen and Arabs, suspect Kurds are "creating facts on the ground" for an eventual claim on Kirkuk's oil, should they secede from Iraq. There has not been a census to establish voter roles, increasing suspicions. But Iraqi legislators found a principled compromise: Kirkuk will be treated just like all other places, with a review only in the event of a large voter increase. There will be no seats assigned to sectarian communities (a proposition that had figured prominently in the negotiations). Both Kurds and Arabs are claiming victory, which has to be a good sign.

Many successful democracies have "closed list" elections, where voters cast their ballots for a political party rather than a candidate. Germany, for example, has a two ballot system, the first for an individual candidate, the second for a party to which additional seats will be allotted. But in countries with ethnic or sectarian divides, such as Iraq, this structure of voting deepens divisions rather than encouraging candidates to broaden their political appeal.

The Iraqi Parliament chose open lists so voters choose candidates rather than parties. Significant credit for this outcome goes to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq's central religious figure, who supported this tighter accountability. His beneficial shaping of the Iraqi political landscape from its margins stands in stark contrast to the dictatorship of Ayatollahs in Iran. Iraqi voters can decide whether party standard bearers merit office, weakening parties and rewarding good governance at the local level. An open list will likely extend the time of government formation, but it is crucial in helping Iraq's nascent democracy get beyond sectarian voting blocs an into a more fluid and policy-based governing coalition.

When I was in Iraq a few weeks ago, it was striking how proud Iraqis are to have held free and fair elections, especially the Jan. 2009 provincial elections in which incumbents were tossed out in large numbers. Nearly all mention the contrast to Iran's elections last summer and Afghanistan's this fall. Passage of the election law and the positive political dynamic that has Iraqis opting in to political wrangling as the means of addressing their disputes bodes very well for Iraq's future.

What is less clear is whether the Obama administration understands the value of a long-term strategic partnership with a democratic Iraq that will be the lodestar of representative government in the Middle East. On the basis statements made by the president and Ambassador Hill, I believe they do not. Instead of playing the end game of our military presence in Iraq in ways that stabilize Iraq and make us a valuable long-term partner, the administration seems only to see the value of getting out of Iraq.

President Obama said, "This agreement advances the political progress that can bring lasting peace and unity to Iraq and allow for the orderly and responsible transition of American combat troops out of Iraq by next September." Ambassador Hill went even further in emphasizing the importance of the election law for our timetable. "What is important is that with the election law, we are very much on schedule for the drawdown," Hill said. This denigrates the importance of Iraq's achievement for Iraqis.

Emphasizing the president's timeline for drawdown does not stabilize Iraq's political landscape. It was important for Iraqis that we meet our obligations in the Security Agreement President Bush signed in 2008. Withdrawing from the cities last June confirmed for Iraqis we respect their sovereignty and abide by our obligations to them. But the bombings of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in August, and the bombings of the Iraqi Interior and Justice Ministries in October have given many Iraqis pause to reconsider whether their security forces can handle the threats the enemies of a successful Iraq pose. Now is a time to reassure Iraqis we will support them as they want to be supported, and will be a partner in their long term success.

The September 2010 end of combat operations is an American deadline, committed to by President Obama but not obligated in any agreement with Iraqis. Conditions in Iraq should be the basis for determining the pace of our drawdown, but the president's comments today reinforce yet again his is a timeline not a conditions-based withdrawal. In a delicate political season for Iraqis, our government should be reinforcing Iraq's success, not subordinating it to the president's political convenience.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images