Free Markets, Free People

Obama’s Wars


Genesis of a poor war strategy – Woodward documents it

The new Bob Woodward book – or at least leaked parts of it – is causing a bit of a stir in the blogosphere today.

One of the versions I read was Steve Luxenberg’s piece in the Washington Post.  The book, entitled “Obama’s Wars” is, per Luxenberg, not about the wars (plural) in Iraq and Afghanistan, but instead the war in Afghanistan (the supposed “good war” that we had to fight) and the war within the administration. 

However, the whole of the debate – i.e. the parameters in which it was conducted – was pretty much dictated by Obama’s desire to get the heck out of there:

"This needs to be a plan about how we’re going to hand it off and get out of Afghanistan," Obama is quoted as telling White House aides as he laid out his reasons for adding 30,000 troops in a short-term escalation. "Everything we’re doing has to be focused on how we’re going to get to the point where we can reduce our footprint. It’s in our national security interest. There cannot be any wiggle room."

Obama rejected the military’s request for 40,000 troops as part of an expansive mission that had no foreseeable end. "I’m not doing 10 years," he told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2009. "I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars."

Now I have some sympathy for the "I’m not doing long-term nation-building". And I have even more for "I am not spending a trillion dollars".

However it should be noted that he’s not necessarily averse to spending a trillion dollars so much as he is to spending it on "the good war". And I’d also bet, given "long term" for any politician is "how long until the next election", that "long term nation building" means after November 2012.

Obama’s entire focus was on "getting out" of Afghanistan. I can’t help but believe the reason for that isn’t just a campaign promise – as I recall, Iraq was the war he promised to end – as the fact that Afghanistan is a distraction for a president who’d much rather focus on domestic problems.

And, with the recession, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, given the fact that his entire focus was on passing health care by hook or crook, you can’t even rationalize his domestic focus. It certainly hasn’t been the economy or jobs he’s made a priority (unless you believe the old Dem principle "if we throw enough money at it, it will take care of itself" was considered "addressing the problem").

Another thing that struck me:

Obama told Woodward in the July interview that he didn’t think about the Afghan war in the "classic" terms of the United States winning or losing. "I think about it more in terms of: Do you successfully prosecute a strategy that results in the country being stronger rather than weaker at the end?" he said.

This is pure, metered politics.  This is a man carefully avoiding anything that can come back on him.  Obviously a “country being stronger rather than weaker at the end” is the difference between victory and defeat.  His equivocation is simply to cover his rear end so if, when he hastily pulls out before the 2012 election, the country falls to the Taliban he has some wiggle room.

I assume learning the CIA is running a 3000-man paramilitary counterterrorism force made up of local Afghans is gong to cause the left some heartburn.  But it isn’t the disclosure that should have the Glenn Greenwalds of the left upset.  How about these:

–Obama has kept in place or expanded 14 intelligence orders, known as findings, issued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. The orders provide the legal basis for the CIA’s worldwide covert operations.

– A new capability developed by the National Security Agency has dramatically increased the speed at which intercepted communications can be turned around into useful information for intelligence analysts and covert operators. "They talk, we listen. They move, we observe. Given the opportunity, we react operationally," then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell explained to Obama at a briefing two days after he was elected president.

After all the caterwauling by the left about the Bush administration this is interesting.  I wonder when they’ll start referring to him as “W Jr.”?

Finally, the surge decision – it was, per Woodward – exactly what many of us feared.  An attempt to please competing sides and, in the end, pleasing no one.

In the end, Obama essentially designed his own strategy for the 30,000 troops, which some aides considered a compromise between the military command’s request for 40,000 and Biden’s relentless efforts to limit the escalation to 20,000 as part of a "hybrid option" that he had developed with Gen. James E. Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The 40,000 figure was McChrystal’s minimum figure. Instead of listening to the commander on the ground, he included "General Biden’s" desires. Result – more than Biden wanted (not pleased, or was he – see below) and less than the generals wanted (not pleased). Additionally Obama added the June 2011 withdrawal date which essentially negated anything positive about the plan – it essentially told the Afghans, “we’re going to go through the motions for a year, but you’re really not worth the effort.”

The Afghans have responded accordingly. 

But one thing that can and will be said of the strategy, given the Woodward disclosures, is no matter how it turns out (and my bet is on poorly) there’s no doubt now whose strategy it is.  And “General Biden’s” role?

Well according to the NY Times account, he was just part of the plan to lower the number of troops the military would get by providing an alternative, no matter how absurd, that the President could trade off of:

I want an exit strategy,” [Obama] implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”

Or said another way – “my mind’s made up, I don’t really care what the military says or wants, I just have to find a plausible way to seem like I’m being responsive when I’m really not because, you see “the whole Democratic Party” is much more important than prosecuting a war I said was important”.  Or words to that effect.

Obama also laid out his strategy objectives in a 6 page memo, but, per the WaPo article, “took the unusual step of stating, along with the strategy’s objectives, what the military was not supposed to do.”  Apparently the memo is reproduced in the book and Luxenberg claims the “don’ts” were mostly aimed at preventing “mission creep”.  I’d guess it involved more than just that.

As for the rest of the article it details some of the politics and pettiness among the administration staff.  Nothing new there – administrations have always been the parking place for massive egos and such egos are constantly bumping into and bruising each other.

What a wonderful world.

~McQ