Streetwise Professor

September 28, 2010

Read the Woodward Article: Just Don’t Believe the Headline

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 3:54 pm

Although I found the initial leaks of parts of the Woodward book on Obama and Afghanistan intriguing, I held off saying anything until the installments actually ran.  Today the first one is available, so here it goes.

The theme of the first installment, accurately conveyed by the headline, is that the military thwarted Obama by refusing to provide options other than those (or that) it considered militarily prudent.

This is a crock.

It would be more accurate to say: the military refused to provide Obama with the option he preferred–and which the military knew he preferred.  That option being, of course, a plan for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Rapid withdrawal being something between an immediate cut and run leaving behind a token force of trainers, and an only slightly lighter version of the plan currently in force.

This refusal frustrated Obama no end, because the military’s obstinacy deprived him of the political cover he desired.  The Pentagon and the uniformed military weren’t about to recommend something they did not believe in.  They said, in effect: if you want to gut the mission in Afghanistan, you take the responsibility, and don’t hide behind us.

The most important figure in this was SecDef Gates, who Obama feared would resign if he chose the trainers-only option.  Obama could not stand such a high profile defection.  It would give the lie to all of his high sounding campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan being a war of necessity.

So Obama chose a course that was as close to his (and Rahm Emmanuel’s and Joe Biden’s) preference for effective abandonment of the Afghan campaign but which was still politically viable.

This demonstrates that the whole idea that Obama was at a loss to craft a policy without recommendations from the Pentagon is in fact a crock.  The article makes it clear that faced with the military’s opposition, Obama dictated his own plan.  Which is his right, as Commander-in-Chief.  But spare me the crocodile tears about the military leaving Obama adrift without strategic advice.  They gave it.  He didn’t like it.  He chose his own option all by his lonesome, thank you very much.  He was capable of doing so all along.

This is all pretty transparent, so one wonders why Gates went along even with the plan Obama eventually dictated, despite its transparently fatal defects.  The only thing that comes to mind is that Gates thought that by keeping the door open, and getting a commitment for more troops albeit with a limited timeline, there was a chance that it Obama would have to renege on his commitment to begin withdrawals almost as soon as the deployment would be completed.

This is a false hope, for it is clear that Obama is viscerally opposed to a continued commitment to Afghanistan.  In this he is one with his political base, and he has no intention of crossing them on this.  Indeed, as Obama’s political fortunes slip, he is even less able to anger those few allies he has left.

Although the military is portrayed as the heavy in this, I would take the opposite view.  They presented what they believe to be their best advice.  That’s their job.  It’s Obama’s to accept it, or not.

It should be noted, moreover, that the current brass is not a bunch of Jack D. Ripper-esque warmongers.  For the most part, they are deeply concerned about the stress on the Army and Marines in particular, and would be anxious to reduce commitments to the extent they believe prudent.  They also realize that Afghanistan is a logistical nightmare.  The fact that they were  pretty unified on the approach needed in Afghanistan despite their concerns over the stresses an increased commitment would impose on the force speaks volumes.

The Woodward piece talks about the specter of Viet Nam hanging over the deliberations.  Here’s a Viet Nam analogy that escapes Woodward’s mention–and the attention of most (and arguably all) who have raised this analogy.   Colonel H. R. McMaster’s book on the Joint Chiefs during Viet Nam shows powerfully that (a) the Joint Chiefs disagreed vehemently with McNamara’s and Johnson’s approach to the war in 1964, (b) McNamara basically isolated them, and (c) the Joint Chiefs acquiesced in this despite their deep misgivings.  McMaster believes that in acquiescing so, the Chiefs were derelict in their duty.  He believes that they should have resigned rather than give their tacit consent to a policy that they did not approve.

There is too little in what has appeared in Woodward’s piece and elsewhere to judge whether the uniformed military and SecDef Gates have been similarly derelict in their duty.  But their consistent opposition to presenting Obama with the option he craved but which revolted them suggests that they were more stalwart than their 1964-65 predecessors were.

I have said before that I am ambivalent about whether it is better to go large or go home in Afghanistan.  I am not ambivalent about the cold-blooded political course Obama has chosen.  His course has no chance of achieving anything there: the hard deadline is arguably the worst of all worlds.  It condemns many Americans–and allies, and Afghans–to death, without any prospect of achieving anything remotely resembling a military victory, even of the most limited variety.  I would much prefer that Obama do what he really wants to do, rather than follow a course that will have all of the same downsides, but which will get more people killed.

One last thing.  It is clear from reading Woodward’s first installment that Obama and Petraeus were bitter antagonists during these debates, and that Patraeus was particularly adamant in his opposition to Obama’s preferred course.  This makes sense, given their previous interactions, which no doubt left bad blood.  (And Patraeus would have every reason to hold a grudge against Obama and those pushing for the cut-and-run option, given the way they had slandered him during the Surge.)

This makes all the more remarkable Obama’s selection of Patraeus to take command in Afghanistan–and Patraeus’s decision to accept it.  The calculations, on both sides, regarding the offer and the acceptance cannot be even partly understood based on what is in the public record.  But it is evident that there is deep tension and suspicion in this relationship, and it is highly likely that there was a heavy dose of cynical gamesmanship by both.  That is the history I would really like to learn.  I wonder if and when we will.

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  1. You say you are conflicted between ” Go large” and “Go home”.

    Unfortunately, even the Army’s preferred 40,000 option gets you nowhere near the number the “protect the population” COIN doctrine calls for in a country with Afghanistans population. By their own doctrine, the Army’s preferred option falls short. If taken, there is every reason to believe that the president would then be requests for more, repeated yearly until throughout our lifetimes, as GEN Petraeus implied when he said this isn’t the sort of war you win. “Going large” gains nothing. Facing the prospect of that endless committment, the president was wise to demand a deadline for “Go home.”

    Comment by rkka — September 28, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

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  3. @rkka. Yes, I never said 40K was going large. To the contrary. But why surge in a half-assed way and then put in a deadline? Worst of all options. Not “wise” at all.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 28, 2010 @ 11:04 pm

  4. Well, the generals whose advice you characterize as “militarily prudent” thought 40k was enough. Unfortunately, its just their opening bid in a process that will consume blood and treasure for our kids lifetimes, as GEN Petraeus said, but for no identifiable objective or national interest remotely worth the cost.

    And the reason Obama is doing it his way? To be more careful getting out of a bungled war than his predecessor was in getting into it and bungling it.

    Comment by rkka — September 29, 2010 @ 4:10 am

  5. Its Woodward we are discussing, what would you expect? Of course what he prints is going to be a piece of crap. This is a guy who used a rouge FBI Asst Director to take down the President of the United States simply because that President wanted to exert executive authority on an executive branch department and designated an outsider to run the FBI who wasn’t as corrupt as Hoover. Woodward is a hack. Plain and simple.

    Comment by Charles — September 29, 2010 @ 9:46 am

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