In ousting General Stanley McChrystal, Obama conjured up images of President Harry Truman firing General Douglas MacArthur. This comparison is misleading because the Truman-MacArthur conflict was over substance. Though Obama was justified in firing McChrystal for showing poor judgment in bad-mouthing his civilian partners in the military led counterinsurgency strategy, McChrystal must have been frustrated by the contradictions in policy at the heart of what is now Obama’s war: limiting collateral damage while winning hearts and minds, building government institutions with a corrupt partner while defeating an insurgency; adding more troops but never enough; and building up in order to leave. The elephant in the General’s command post was not the Rolling Stone reporter but a stark reality: Afghanistan is the wrong war, in the wrong place at the worst possible time.
So a better comparison than with Truman’s decisiveness is with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s disastrous incremental decision making in the Vietnam War. In analyzing the Pentagon papers, Daniel Ellsberg made an important point about that conflict: President Johnson and his predecessors knew they couldn’t win militarily but they knew also that if they didn’t continue the escalation, they would lose politically. What political factors account for Obama’s journey down a comparable slippery slope?
- Electoral Politics: Obama’s decisions about the war go back to his Presidential campaign. At that time, to win the election he needed to win the support of the peace faction in his own party and, at the same time, not be perceived as a peacenik by the right of center. He committed himself to ending “the bad war in Iraq” in order to pursue “the good war in Afghanistan.” In this way, he could (a) politically distance himself from the disastrous policies of Cheney/Rumsfeld in Iraq, (b) highlight the failure of Bush to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, and (c) embrace the left and its critique of America’s Iraq policy.
- Early Decisions: Shortly after his election, in a pattern reminiscent of LBJ after the assassination of JFK, Obama made several decisions that escalated the conflict. Obama doubled down on the Afghanistan policy, firing the allied commander in Afghanistan and bringing on board McChrystal who had been the leader of special ops in Iraq — assassination squads that were the third pillar of the apparently successful surge in Iraq. McChrystal had also been implicated in the cover-up of the friendly fire killing of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Obama also agreed to bring the troop level up to 100,000 giving McChrystal 30,000 of the 40,000 troops he requested. Obama also committed the U.S. to a July, 2011 withdrawal date. At work was Obama’s now apparent political style of rationalizing and synthesizing the prevailing views of important centers of power in an issue area. In this case, that meant splitting the difference among his advisors: He would build up in order to get out.
- The New General: In choosing General David Petraeus to replace McChrystal as the new allied commander in Afghanistan, Obama has created an ever more powerful constraint on future options. As the hero of Iraq, Petreaus is uniquely positioned politically to get what he wants in terms of troops, resources, and timetable. Petreaus has already made clear that Obama’s deadline for withdrawal is “condition based.” If Petreaus wants more troops, he will get them. If he doesn’t, he won’t be fired; he will quit. He can then come home and run for President as a Republican.
- The doctrine: The counterinsurgency doctrine being implemented in Afghanistan and authored by Petreauus is a plan of action for U.S. forces as they fight terrorism in failed states. The doctrine resonates with that part of the foreign policy elite that seeks a rationale for American intervention to achieve global stability. Counterinsurgency reconciles the Wilsonian vision of bringing democracy to far away places with the reality of U.S. military power by turning soldiers into nation builders. In the 1990’s the human rights community learned that to bring American ideals to places like the Balkans, outside actors had to build governmental institutions, train security forces, and transform society to make human rights a reality. This renewed commitment to a Wilsonian vision for America’s role in the world coincided with the military’s need for a new mission in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the defeat of communism. After 911, terrorism replaced communism as the U.S enemy. When the Bush administration went to war in Iraq because of weapons of mass destruction and then found none, it pivoted from its original rationale with one more politically acceptable — bringing democracy to Iraq. It moved to state/nation building in spite of Bush’s campaign rhetoric not to do so. In the insulated foreign policy community, Petraeus and the counterinsurgency doctrine represent the most broadly acceptable rationale for the military and its $700 billion budget in a world that lacks a superpower rival to the United States. State building by soldiers is an ideal fit with the relative budgets of the State Department and the Pentagon. ($700 billion versus $50 billion). Ironically, because of the nature of Afghanistan’s traditional tribal society and the vested interest of regional actors in continuing the conflict, the Petreaus doctrine is being tested in the worst place imaginable.
- The regional players: Finally, Obama is vulnerable because a political solution depends on regional actors — Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran and China — who have clients in the Afghan struggle, have no incentive to extricate the U.S. from its new quagmire, and no reason to make the U.S. leader in the settlement process. The Petreaus doctrine increases the possibility that regional actors such as Pakistan will reach a deal with the Afghan government and the Taliban over the head of the United States. Pakistan feels it must dictate the terms of a post U.S. withdrawal settlement in order to continue its policy of achieving “strategic depth” in its conflict with India by using Afghanistan as a base of Kashmir insurgents. As America proceeds down the path of counterinsurgency to achieve a position of strength in order to facilitate negotiations later for a settlement in Afghanistan, regional actors have an interest in consolidating their position in the face of American ambiguity about when and if it is leaving Afghanistan. Committed to getting out by July 2011, Obama has selected a commander who has the political capital to stand against that goal adding further to the chaos and confusion that is Afghanistan.
The few days that transpired from the publication of the Rolling Stone article to the replacement of one general with another was a fine display of Presidential power in defense of civilian control of the military. Unfortunately, the political factors — the promises of the campaign, the early decisions, the appointment of Petreaus, the prevailing counterinsurgency doctrine, and the aims and goals of regional actors — all suggest that the clock is ticking and Obama’s choices with regard to Afghanistan are limiting the possibilities for what he might really want to do in that part of the world. His dilemma is not unlike that of the Presidents who took the long road to Vietnam.