Shadow Government

Obama Finally Joins the Debate He Called For

Today President Barack Obama finally joins the national debate he called for a long time ago but then abandoned: the debate about how best to balance national security and civil liberty. As I outlined in NPR's scene-setter this morning, this debate is a tricky one for a president who wants to lead from behind. The public's view shifts markedly in response to perceptions of the threat, so a political leader who is only following the public mood will crisscross himself repeatedly.

Changing one's mind and shifting the policy is not inherently a bad thing to do. There is no absolute and timeless right answer, because this is about trading off different risks. The risk profile itself shifts in response to our actions. When security is improving and the terrorist threat is receding, one set of trade-offs is appropriate. When security is worsening and the terrorist threat is worsening, another might be.

It is likely, however, that the optimal answer is not the one advocated by the most fringe position. A National Security Agency (NSA) hobbled to the point that some on the far left (and, it must be conceded, the libertarian right) are demanding would be a mistake that the country would regret every bit as much as we would regret an NSA without any checks or balances or constraints.

Getting this right will require inspired and active political leadership. To date, Obama has preferred to stay far removed from the debate swirling around the Snowden leaks. This president relishes opportunities to spend political capital on behalf of policies that disturb Republicans, but, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's memoir details, Obama has been very reluctant to expend political capital on behalf of national security policies that disturb his base. Today Obama is finally engaging. It will be interesting to see how he threads the political needle and, just as importantly, how much political capital he is willing to spend in the months ahead to defend his policies.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Duty Calls

Robert Gates's memoir of his time as secretary of defense teems with frustration at the dysfunction and petty politics of the U.S. government, and especially of the Congress and the ravenous politicization of national security policy by Barack Obama's administration. The blandness of the White House's reaction ("the President deeply appreciates Bob Gates' service as Secretary of Defense, and his lifetime of service to our country") and the vituperativeness of the president's defenders show how damaging a chord the former defense secretary's criticism has struck.

But there's actually not much in the book that wasn't known to attentive newspaper audiences. That the president was ambivalent about his Afghanistan strategy was clear from the back-to-back Afghanistan reviews in 2009, the unwillingness to give commanders the surge troop strength they requested (30,000 was a compromise White House number), and the arbitrary and unreasonable timeline the president set for achieving his objectives. That Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were shamelessly willing to politicize national security issues was clear at least from the time of the Senate hearings on the Iraq surge, when they both called David Petraeus's honesty into question. That this White House is more maniacally controlling than any since Richard Nixon's is, again, well-trod ground.

What is getting attention is less what is said than who said it. Gates is revered in the U.S. military for steadying the ship after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and for being unflinchingly serious about the undertaking -- forcing the procurement system to work to quickly address war needs, being honest about mistakes, ensuring military leaders were competent and focused, relieving people (civilian and military) who were not. So his criticism will cut deeply.

One of the most damaging revelations, one indicative of the poisonous civil-military atmosphere in the Obama administration, is the Situation Room meeting on Afghanistan in which the president obliquely accused the military of "gaming" him -- leaking its recommendations to the media in order to (as White House leakers of the time said in the press) "box the president in." Gates's reaction is that the president's behavior was "inappropriate, not to mention highly disrespectful of Petraeus. As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn't trust his commander, can't stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn't believe in his own strategy, and doesn't consider the war to be his. For him, it's all about getting out."

The moment is illustrative of this White House and this president's arrogance, putting his defense team in its place and proving Gates's point about the civil-military friction in the Obama administration. But it is also illustrative that Gates took offense without challenging the president's assertion. It needn't have been angry or confrontational; he could simply have said, "Boss, I think that's unfair. We're all trying to come up with a policy that will win the war on terms you're comfortable with." That might have taken the sting out of the insult and modeled the kind of behavior he clearly believed should have been the norm but that this president and his closest advisors were not exhibiting.

Gates also didn't provide the president with options that met what he believed were the president's real objectives. If the president didn't trust his commander, why didn't Gates remove the commander and replace him with one the president had greater confidence in? If the president couldn't stand Karzai, why did the Pentagon persist in advocating a strategy that hinged fundamentally on Karzai's cooperation and success? If the president didn't believe in his own strategy, why didn't the secretary of defense quietly organize an effort to explore alternative strategies to achieve the president's aims? If the president didn't consider the war his, why didn't the secretary of defense address that privately with him and explain the damaging consequences of sending young Americans in harm's way under those circumstances? If the war was all about ending the war, why didn't the secretary of defense develop courses of action to achieve that objective sooner, cheaper, and with fewer lives at stake? 

Whether Gates served the Department of Defense or the country well by giving the president a pass on behavior that alienated the military from its civilian leadership is an important question, one deserving of careful thought about alternative courses of action and how they might have affected policy going forward. Gates persisted in supporting approaches inconsistent with what he believed to be the president's strong preferences. Was he right to support the compromise surge of troops under those circumstances? Should he have defended his department more assertively?

The crass politicization of the wars by the Obama administration is likely to make the military even more wary of the country's political leadership. That's worrisome, but not necessarily a bad thing. Eliot Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, memorably said in 2000 (after much fuss about the demise of civil-military relations in Bill Clinton's administration) that it was important for George W. Bush to be elected so that the military could learn to dislike Republicans again. The military has been at that point with the Obama administration since at least the 2009 Afghanistan review, which it considered a bad-faith process by the White House. But Gates's memoir may discredit among the military those military leaders who have defended the president's choices.

Gates's memoir will probably also reinforce the already prevalent belief that domestic politics are all this president really cares about, thereby reinforcing the public hesitance to be actively engaged in shaping the international order. This White House acts like public attitudes are the law of gravity instead of amenable to presidential leadership. Because the White House won't burn any political capital for national security gains, the public is properly hesitant to support any involvement -- they're more conscientious than this White House about putting young Americans in harm's way if it isn't important enough to win the war. And maybe that's not a terrible outcome, either, since if the president isn't willing to think strategically about how to achieve his national security objectives, isn't willing to make the case for his own policies, and doesn't believe in his own strategy for the war in Afghanistan or his proposed war in Syria, the country is probably better served by not fighting them. The world will become more dangerous for U.S. interests, but it is more morally defensible than the halfhearted Lyndon-Johnson-With-Vietnam acquiescence with which Obama has approached his wars as commander in chief.

Gates is unquestionably the finest secretary of defense the country has had in a very long time -- possibly the best ever. His bitter memoir shows how significant a toll it took on him caring so much for the people he commanded and the responsibilities he bore for his country -- we ought all to be grateful to him. One fitting way to honor him would be for the rest of us to think seriously about the dilemmas and failures he raises -- including his own -- and how to improve on the government's ability to develop and carry out sensible national security policies.

Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images