Shadow Government

Commander-in-chief, distracted

As a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I was gratified to hear President Obama's tribute to the courage of America's service members, including the Navy SEALs with whom I served in 2003. Over the course of the conflict, American forces have adapted and performed admirably under extremely difficult conditions. As James Russell writes in the latest issue of The Journal of Strategic Studies, American units structured and trained for conventional military operations shifted successfully to wage successfully a very different type of war.

And yet, one could not help to see in the president's words and mannerisms, a man who was distracted, whose heart wasn't in it. In a speech nominally devoted to Iraq, he couldn't help but talk about the U.S. economy.

Obama's speech begged comparison to his predecessor -- indeed, his words invited such a comparison. And it is by comparison that he comes up short. Whereas Bush exhibited great courage in going against his own military to support the Iraqi surge and sell it to his own party and the American people, Obama has yet to put comparable effort into selling his own Afghan surge. The Oval Office speech was a missed opportunity to do just that.

In addition, in tone and substance, Obama's speech failed to prepare the American people for what may be to come in Iraq. Although last night Obama formally declared an end to combat operations, nearly 50,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines remain in Iraq, training and assisting the Iraqi armed forces. It is inevitable that in coming weeks and months these men and women will be attacked by insurgents who want nothing more than to cripple the Iraqi government and humiliate the United States, and is inevitable that more Americans will die or suffer wounds in Iraq. The president did nothing to explain this situation to the public.

Just as it was misleading for President Bush to speak in triumphant terms in May 2003, it was premature for President Obama to give the American people the impression that the Iraq War is over. It may be, to quote Churchill, "the end of the beginning," but we have hardly reached the end.


Shadow Government

Obama's overambitious Iraq speech

President Obama's Oval Office address last night reminded me of an exchange I had last fall with a senior White House staff member at a policy conference. It was in the midst of the prolonged Afghan strategy review, and a very full domestic agenda, especially the push for the health care bill, and I was trying to get a sense of the president's state of mind and leadership priorities. I asked this staff member "In your observation, does President Obama consider himself a 'wartime president'?" The staff member responded somewhat defensively by describing how much the president cares for the military and is committed to the troops' welfare. But it was telling, I thought, that this staffer's answer avoided the actual question.

To be clear, there is no doubt that this White House is fully aware that it leads a nation at war, and that Obama feels deeply the manifest responsibilities of being commander-in-chief. Yet as Peter Baker's excellent New York Times article showed, and as last night's speech only further demonstrated, this is also a White House ambivalent about the term "wartime presidency" because it is ambivalent about just how much of a defining priority the wars should be. Especially in the midst of ongoing economic travails at home and an ambitious domestic policy agenda.

In this context, the president's speech was a worthy-enough effort, with a few high points. But taken in the whole, it tried to do too much and thus accomplished too little. It tried to celebrate the end of the war in Iraq while promising an ongoing (though vaguely defined) U.S. commitment; it tried to turn the nation's focus to the Afghanistan crucible while reiterating next year's force drawdown; it tried to cast the conflict against al Qaeda as the most urgent national security threat while failing to explain the strategic context for why Afghanistan and Iraq matter in that conflict (let alone Yemen or Somalia or other emerging hotspots); it tried to argue that the economic situation at home is the highest overall priority while being a speech about national security commitments overseas.

This last point is another illustration of the potential downsides of too tightly connecting domestic economic strength with international security (as the Obama National Security Strategy does). At one level this is a truism, of course, and has a coherent internal logic -- a strong economy at home enables strength aboard. But in the messy world of policymaking and hard trade-offs, overemphasizing this connection can lead to prioritizing expensive domestic programs (some of questionable utility) at the expense of national security commitments. See, for example, this quote from the Baker article on the White House's past deliberations on Afghanistan:

One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. "Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics," the adviser said. "He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration."

As with the crammed-in domestic policy section at the end of last night's speech, in Mike Gerson's words, "the president indicated that events in Iraq and Afghanistan were a distraction from his real agenda."

Even as the main audience for last night's speech, the American public, might have come away somewhat confused over the White House's priorities, it also sent an uncertain message to other important audiences in the CENTCOM region. These include the fractious and stalemated Iraqi government facing an unsure security environment; an Iranian regime watching for signs of American vulnerability; other Arab states worried about the U.S. posture especially in light of Iran's nuclear ambitions; or Pakistan and India whose questions about America's longer-term commitment in Afghanistan leads them to their own hedging strategies.

This is not to say that the president's speech was a failure; it was not. As Peter Feaver points out below, President Obama provided some needed answers and notes of grace. But for the answers it provided, it also raised more questions.