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

Shadow Government

Why the U.S. should keep an eye on China's military

By Thomas G. Mahnken

One topic that is likely to arise during President Obama's trip to Asia, if not in his meetings in Beijing, is the continuing modernization of the Chinese military. Asian leaders are privately, and increasingly publicly, concerned about China's growing military might and what they see as a failure of the United States to respond. This year's Australian defense white paper, for example, portrays a future in which China contests American primacy in Asia and beyond. When one of the United States' closest allies expresses such concerns, Washington should listen.

According to at least one high-ranking official, the United States has systematically underestimated the pace and scope of Chinese military modernization for years. On Oct. 21 in an interview with the Voice of America, the incoming Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral Robert F. Willard, USN, told reporters that, "In the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity, every year. ... They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities. And, they've developed some asymmetric capabilities that are concerning to the region, some anti-access capabilities and so on." Willard should know. Prior to becoming the USPACOM commander, he was in command of all U.S. naval forces in the Pacific; before that, he was Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Willard's observation should be cause for concern, but is not a surprise. Intelligence organizations have a tendency to underestimate rising powers. As I discuss in my book, Uncovering Ways of War, U.S. Army and Navy intelligence in the period between the two world wars underestimated the growth of the Japanese military power not because of racial bias or ethnocentrism, but rather because of the very real tendency to look back on Japan's modest military capabilities and project them into the future. As a result, American intelligence organizations overlooked a number of areas where the Japanese military innovated, failures that cost the United States and its allies dearly in World War II.

I suspect that the same pathologies may be at work today regarding China. The People's Liberation Army of the 1980s and 1990s was hardly first-rate. In recent years, however, China has made real strides, including the testing of an anti-satellite weapon in July 2007 and the development of an anti-ship ballistic missile designed to attack U.S. carrier strike groups. Outside a small circle of cognoscenti, however, perceptions of Chinese military power have failed to keep pace with this reality.

If we are in danger of underestimating Chinese military power, China's leaders are in danger of overestimating it. Some portions of the Chinese military have not seen action since China's 1979 war with Vietnam; others have not seen combat since the Korean War. Although China is in the process of fielding increasingly capable weapons, the military effectiveness of the PLA is very much an open question.

The United States needs to do more to understand the Chinese military. The PLA intently studies the U.S. military; the U.S. military lacks a similar curiosity about them. That needs to change. It would be worthwhile, for example, to translate and make available to scholars a broader array of Chinese writings about military affairs. In addition, the U.S. military needs to devote greater attention to understanding the Chinese military, as well as the strategic and operational challenges it poses. Doing so will not, as some assert, preordain conflict with China. To the contrary, a better understanding of the Chinese military should help us avoid misperception and bolster deterrence. Such an effort should include our allies and friends in the region, who have their own perspectives and their own concerns with China's military expansion.

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