Shadow Government

Withdrawing from Afghanistan: Obama vs. the GOP, part II

President Obama's decision on the Afghan withdrawal was classic Obama. He split the difference between two coherent positions -- 1) withdraw as little as possible to maximize the chance of success versus 2) withdraw as much as possible to maximize political gain -- and came up with a middle-of-the-road muddle. It's clear that Obama and his advisors approach these decisions as politicians, not strategists.

But even then, the decision didn't make a whole lot of sense. The biggest political risk Obama faces is losing Afghanistan just in time for next year's election: I see no good reason not to keep as many forces in country as possible, just for self-interested political reasons, let alone what's best for U.S. security. Peter Feaver and Max Boot, among others, have had insightful analyses of the decision and its tangled rationales.

Generally, Obama's speech was of a piece with his Afghanistan policy as a whole: It could have been a lot worse, but he certainly missed easy opportunities to make it better. He was right to emphasize that "In part because of our military effort, we have reason to believe that progress can be made," a point that most of official Washington seems to disbelieve. Obama was right to link the Afghanistan war with prospects for stability in Pakistan. But he failed to make a strong case, or even show much abiding concern, for why the United States should remain committed to stability in South Asia. He continues in his mistaken approach of viewing South Asia exclusively through a counterterrorism lens, when much more is at stake.

UPDATE: In my last post I reviewed the Republican presidential candidates' positions on Afghanistan. Here is a good summary of most of the candidates' reactions to the speech, which tracks pretty well with my last post. Pawlenty has clarified his position, which is that we should minimize the withdrawal and heed Petraeus's advice. Bachmann, whose statement is available in a Weekly Standard brief interview, concurred: "We've got to stay the course, and we've got to finish the job … we are making great progress … I do trust General Petraeus." Not bad, though I'd like to see some acknowledgment of the major difficulties with the Afghan government, the attendant failures of our civilian assistance effort, and the need for a tougher line with Kabul. Bachmann and Pawlenty give the impression that they believe our recent successes, which are indeed real and significant, are also unqualified, across the board, and robust. They are not (yet).

On a related note, our friends over at the Compass have a great piece on Jon Hunstman's foreign policy.

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Shadow Government

Echoes of Bush in Obama's war in Libya

The president of the United States makes almost unprecedented assertions of executive authority and launches a controversial war of choice* in the Middle East, targeting for regime change a dictator accused of committing atrocities against his own citizens, producing weapons of mass destruction, and sponsoring international terrorism. Amid the White House's promises of a quick victory, a compliant Congress initially goes along with the war, but months later disgruntlement sets in and Capitol Hill begins to raise concerns.

The preceding paragraph might sound like the standard left-wing critique of the Bush administration's Iraq War, of the type that was often written during the Bush years by any number of commentators. But observant readers no doubt realize that here it instead describes the Obama administration's ongoing war -- and yes, it is a war -- in Libya. These are strange times we are in. From the administration's strained interpretation of "hostilities" to contend that the War Powers Act does not apply, to last Friday's conflicting and conflicted votes in the House of Representatives, in which a bill to defund the war failed but a separate bill denying authorization of the war passed, few of our customary political categories apply. (For some expert yet accessible discussions of the legal issues involved, check out the indispensable Lawfare blog coedited by my Strauss Center colleague Bobby Chesney).

The administration sought to spin the House vote as a win because the measure to cut off war funding did not succeed. But as Josh Rogin notes, a majority of the House in fact opposes funding the war. And the power of the purse, as Peter Feaver has pointed out, is the indisputable tool granted by the constitution to Congress to express its will on matters of war-making -- and to bear the political consequences.

The political developments of the last few weeks leave few parties appearing statesmanlike. While justifiably frustrated with the White House for its lack of consultation or commitment, members of Congress who voted against the Libya operation also sent Qaddafi a message of lack of support for our military forces and lack of resolve. Yet the bulk of the blame in this case goes to the White House. As many have pointed out, the Obama administration somehow decided that it needed the support of the Arab League and the United Nations to launch the war, but not the U.S. Congress. Politically, President Obama has not made a convincing case to Congress and the American people on why we are in Libya and what the strategy is to win. Strategically, he has not devoted the necessary resources, tactics, and political will to deliver on his policy goal of ousting Muammar al-Qaddafi. Legally, he has contrived an argument to avoid the War Powers Act that one suspects even he and his lawyers know is implausible. Taken together, this is a cynical and ineffective way for a political leadership to wage war. It is not even "leading from behind" -- it is not leading at all.

The anemic support at home is matched by fraying relations with our allies. Once again, the French are demanding that the U.S. commit more resources to the fight, particularly for stepped-up airstrikes. The British worry that their already overstretched and underfunded forces can't sustain the campaign past August. And the Libyan rebels wonder why NATO does not show an apparent commitment to win.

While the legal and political morass in the U.S. is frustrating, most distressing are the conditions on the ground in Libya, where Qaddaffi's resilience seems to have produced a fragile stalemate. I signed this Foreign Policy Initiative letter last week urging House Republicans to support the campaign against Qaddafi -- and urging the Obama administration to commit the necessary resources and political will to finish the job. Four months into the war, the priority now has to be showing unity and resolve to win, and taking the needful steps to do so.

*With apologies to Peter Feaver, this trope just won't die

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