Shadow Government

What the Afghan policy rollout tells us about Obama's domestic agenda

By Peter Feaver

The post-Afghan-announcement spin has been almost as interesting as the announcement itself. Over on our sister blog, Tom Ricks raps my knuckles for finding fault with Obama's rhetoric and assures us that the speech was likely effective with its intended audience: Obama supporters.

Color me "still not persuaded." Mind you, I agree that Obama aimed the speech at his supporters, especially his supporters who like to think that all of Obama's problems can be blamed on his predecessor (supporters like Tom, for instance). I further agree that the policy compromise, particularly the promise to begin the withdrawal in 18 months, was aimed at his supporters. I just don't think the speech was effective at doing so. Mine is not a partisan observation, since folks who have drunk far more Kool-Aid than Tom, folks like Chris Matthews, for instance, also found the speech ineffective.

But what matters is not the relative artfulness vs. artlessness of the speech. What will have lingering impact is the 3-month review, not the 30-some minute speech. And here I believe, the case is fairly dispositive. Despite the spin coming out of the White House, this review, and its general untidiness, almost certainly did more damage to public/political support for the war than it helped. Several dedicated Obama supporters have tried to persuade me that Obama has been masterful throughout this process and their case just does not withstand careful scrutiny.

To make the case that this was masterful, one has to make a far-fetched counterfactual argument that the (declining) support we see today is somehow stronger (and much, much stronger) than it would have been in early September if the president had made the decision in a timely manner. Further, one must argue that going forward the president is better poised to keep that support shored up despite all of the other damage (such as to our NATO and regional allies) that has been done in the intervening 3 months.

But Obama did not use the three month interval to shore up domestic support for the war and, on the contrary, it is likely that domestic support for his policy is lower today than it would have been had he conducted the review in a less clumsy fashion. Instead of spending the time reassuring wobbly Democrats, the team spent their time doing a near-Diem on Karzai, upbraiding the military brass, and, of course, complaining about how the previous team never ever asked any hard questions. This gave both time and material to strengthen the anti-war sentiment at home (to be sure it is not a juggernaut, but it is undeniably stronger on Dec. 3 than it was on Sept. 3, as the three month slide in poll numbers makes clear), to re-cement in Pakistan's mind that the United States is an unreliable ally, to undermine the utility of the two principal civilian players in the Afghan mission (Holbrooke and Eikenberry), to convince the major NATO allies that they were right to start edging to the door, and to sow all sorts of doubts in the minds of the U.S. military.

Now the policy compromise itself is indeed intended to shore up that support (buying Dem acquiescence with an arbitrary commitment to give a "mission accomplished" speech in July 2011) while doing the least amount of damage to the actual policy (give McChrystal close to what he asked for, give himself enough wiggle room to keep waging the war after his 2011 "mission accomplished speech"). But it did not take him 3 months of painstaking review to find that that compromise. It was available to him all along. So far, the Obama team has not leaked any evidence to suggest that the arbitrary date was derived from careful analysis of what is actually doable on the ground in Afghanistan: eg. How fast can we really stand up the ANA or how fast can we really strike a mortal blow at the Taliban. In the absence of that sort of analysis, it is more likely that the target date was arrived at by analysis of two other fixed calendars -- calendars that were known long ago: the troop PERSTEMPO schedule and the 2012 presidential primary calendar. If so, that Solomonic compromise was fully discernible from the beginning and Obama could have announced it to roughly the same level of cheers and jeers in early September.

So the long review was not really about buying time to shore up public or political support for the war. That does not mean that the delay served no political purpose. It may be that the long delayed review served two other political goals, one successfully and the other less so.

First, the delay bought time and freed up legislative/political bandwidth to pass Obamacare. Had Obama announced the Afghanistan decision in September, he would have greatly complicated the politics of health care. Having angered his left-wing base on Afghanistan, he might have felt obliged to tilt even further to the left (and sooner) on health care. As it is, he still faces a fight in the Senate, but health care looks to be in far better shape today than it did in early September. In that respect, this is a very close analog to President Johnson's 1964-1965 strategic calculation: dither on national security policy long enough to get the higher priority domestic programs through.  

Second, the delay bought time and freed up political space to do a full-court press to mobilize base turnout in the off-year elections. This domestic objective was not successfully reached, but it was not for lack of trying on the part of the White House who deployed Obama to an extraordinary degree in an effort to win both New Jersey and Virginia. Given how desperate both candidates were for a strong turn-out of the left-wing base in the election, it would be only natural for the political advisors who played such an integral role in Obama's Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 to want to delay any policy decision that would anger the base until after the election.

Mind you, I am not sure that these domestic political calculations were the primary factors dictating the pace of the review. It may very well be the case that the dithering was largely due to Obama's own discomfort with the decision. However, I am pretty sure that the delay was not primarily or even secondarily about doing the ground work necessary to reassure Obama supporters that the president had done due diligence before ordering an escalation for a war that only a few months earlier all of those people were championing as the good and necessary war.

There is one final way in which the 3-month delay might linger. One theme emerged fairly consistently from all of the leaking and sniping: Please give Obama credit for doing the kind of serious analysis and question-asking and military-request-heeding that you-know-who never did. This was a natural extension of the permanent political campaign  and, while tiresome, might at least be defensible if it were true and well-aimed. But it has been neither. The key charges have been shown to be false (for instance, see here and here).

But perhaps worse than repeatedly leveling false charges, the attacks are poorly aimed: whether intended or not, the folks hit by these attacks are members of Obama's own Afghanistan security team. The people who "failed" to do the serious analysis, question-asking, and military-request-heeding, as the president's spokesman Gibbs makes clear, were the folks in charge throughout 2008. The problem is that they happen to include some of the same people on whom Obama now relies, including his Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his White House Afghan war czar General Doug Lute. One could argue that since the attacks are false to begin with, there is no damage done and the people hit with those attacks are not going to get upset. Yet, when Secretary Gates goes to some lengths to explain that what the president said last night about deadlines was really not much of a deadline, one cannot help but wonder whether he is showing that he can dish it out as well as take it. And when the White House hits back within the same news cycle one cannot help but wonder whether we are heading into a stormy patch personnel-wise on national security.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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