Shadow Government

It's time for Obama to face facts: Afghanistan is his war now

By Peter Feaver

For nearly a week, I have been thinking about a comment my friend and fellow civil-military relations specialist Eliot Cohen made in a Washington Post story about President Obama struggling to come to terms with his role as "commander-in-chief." I am quoted in the story, too, but the part that really gripped me was this quote from Cohen:

With this decision, he's really going to own this war, and he's going to be sending young men and women to their deaths. And when that realization sets in, it's a very grim thing. He may have known it intellectually before, but what I think is happening is he's learning it viscerally."

Cohen's larger point, and the general thrust of the article, is spot-on. Throughout the painfully long and awkward Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 -- with all of the back-stabbing leaks and blame-throwing -- it is increasingly clear that the president is visibly wrestling with his commander-in-chief duties, and doing so at a gut level (vice an abstract intellectual level) for the first time.

I also think that Cohen captures accurately the president's own thinking about the gravity of the choice before him: with his decision, Obama will acknowledge that he "owns this war." I have probably said something similar myself in commentary about the strategy review process.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that this insight is misleading in a fundamental way. Obama may well think that he does not yet own the Afghan war and will only own it once he finally decides this issue. But in truth he has "owned" the war for many months now, and it is a dangerous conceit for the president or his team to think otherwise.

Of course, Obama legally "owned" the Afghan war on Inauguration Day. One could also say that Obama has politically "owned" the Afghan war ever since he decided to base his presidential campaign foreign policy platform on the premise that the Bush team had taken its eye off of the ball of the "necessary" war in Afghanistan.  

But in policy terms, President Obama took ownership of the war when he announced the results of his Afghan Strategy Review 1.0 back in March. That decision, announced with great fanfare and some too-clever-by-half spin, was an ownership moment. At that moment, Obama was "sending young men and women to their deaths," to use Cohen's evocative language.

When it became Obama's war in policy terms, he took responsibility for the success or failure of the war. Regardless of what the president decides in the coming weeks, if America ultimately prevails in Afghanistan, Obama will deserve credit and if we do not, Obama will deserve blame. Historians will endlessly debate how much, but inescapably some credit or blame must belong to the current president.

I think the president is more likely to make a wise decision if he confronts the Afghan situation with eyes unclouded by wishful thinking. One such wishful thought would be if the president convinced himself that he only "owns" the Afghan war once he renders his decision on the current review -- or even more wishfully, only if he authorizes McChrystal's escalation. The truth is Obama owns this war right now, and the sooner he accepts that, the more effectively he will be able to lead the country.  

The world is waiting for America's commander-in-chief, but unlike Godot, he is already here.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images

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