Monday, June 28, 2010

Obama's Leadership Deficit

As I wrote last week, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's unfortunate flirtation with Rolling Stone Magazine produced a moment where we all refocused our attention on the Afghan War. Then we all became aware of the fact that we are failing in Afghanistan. I called it a moment of McChrystallization. Link here.

Much of the debate has been clear, concise, and to the point. The only exceptions are the encomiums that are being heaped on Pres. Obama for having shown something resembling executive leadership. Many of Obama's media enablers were thrilled to see the commander in chief step up, accept the unfortunate general's resignation and appoint Gen. David Petraeus to head up the Afghan war.

Surely, Petraeus is a great general; surely, he was instrumental in salvaging a desperate situation in Iraq. But that does not mean that he is going to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat again. The problem in Afghanistan was our political leadership, not our military command.

Perhaps by appointing George W. Bush's favorite general Obama is signaling a shift in war strategy, a new determination to prevail. And yet, with Petraeus in charge, if we do fail, a canny political operator like Obama could simply say that he had done as much as he could, but that even David Petraeus could not lead us to victory.

But, as Fouad Ajami explains this morning, the real problem with the war lies in the fact that Obama: "... is prosecuting a war he can neither abandon nor fight to a convincing victory." Link here.

Obama's heart is not in the war effort; he does not want it to distract the nation from his domestic agenda or cost him too many popularity points.

As everyone knows by now, the primary problem in Afghanistan is Obama's deadline for withdrawal. Admittedly, every time Obama insists on a timeline, administration officials rush to the microphones and the Congressional hearings to explain that he did not really mean it.

Even with the same commanding general, the contrast between Bush and Obama could not be more stark. George Bush was in Iraq to win, and was willing to stay in Iraq as long as it took. No one doubted his conviction or his doggedness. Obama, however, keeps his eyes focused on the exit.

In the larger foreign policy context, George Bush declared war on terror, on terrorists, and on the regimes that harbor them. Obama has tried to make nice with our enemies.

In some ways Obama cannot do a real policy reset in Afghanistan because his only real conviction, irrational as it may seem, is to be unlike George Bush. That is one reason why we should not be too quick to see the return of David Petraeus as a fundamental change in policy.

After all, David Petraeus was not called out of retirement to take over in Afghanistan. He was called out of his post commanding Centcom in Tampa. From there he was responsible for overseeing the military efforts in Afghanistan. A less than charitable soul could say that his new command is something of a demotion.

During the last presidential campaign, Obama's supporters were arguing that when he looked like he could not make up his mind or take a stand, he was in fact demonstrating his superior mental acuity. Some even compared him to John Kerry. He was not confused or indecisive; he had a nuanced approach to policy. Yet, nuanced counts for nothing in foreign policy. When put into practice it spells incoherence.

However great General David Petraeus is, he is still following what Ajami called Obama's "uncertain trumpet." Ajami reveals Obama's incoherent policy in this passage: "He had vowed to fight in Afghanistan while belittling the challenge that radical Islamism posed to American security. He had told his devotees that the anti-Americanism of the Islamic world was certain to blow over in the aftermath of his election. He had attributed much of the anti-Americanism to the Iraq war and to the ideological zeal of his predecessors. His foreign policy was to explicitly rest on a rupture with the foreign policy of the past. Like Jimmy Carter's in the 1970s, this was to be a foreign policy of contrition for America's presumed sins."

I do not have to tell you that contrition will not sustain a fierce determination to win a war. Having your team go out to provide constant clarification of the policy does not impress those who are directly involved in the war. As Ajami put it: "Mullah Omar in Quetta may not be schooled in the arcane details of American politics, but he had all the knowledge he needed: The Americans were not in this fight for long. He would wait them out and make a run at the regime in Kabul."

If Obama has been told that his timetable for withdrawal is undermining the war effort, he does not seem to have gotten the point. As Politico reported today, he has fallen back on his usual petulance: "Obama chastised what he dubbed a current 'obsession' over a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. 'My focus right now is how do we make sure what we're doing there is successful,' he said. 'By next year we will begin a transition'."

Friday the Los Angeles Times reported on how the Obama administration obsession with withdrawal is playing out in Baghdad. "The Iraqis describe U. S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U. S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy's single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq's neighbor and the United States' rival-- Iran." Link here.

Generals do not win wars on their own. Obama made a good decision when he appointed David Petraeus. It remains to be seen whether he is sending Petraeus over to win a war or to run cover for his retreat.

Many people are optimistic that David Petraeus can impose his will on the political leadership in Washington. But, if so, why did he not do it while he was running Centcom from Tampa?


Anonymous said...

"The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people," says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. "The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.

Guess who made General and who didn't.

Guess who distinguished himself in combat and guess who didn't.

In the 90's, I worked for a lot of Perfumed Princes like McChrystal.

They look great on paper.

McChrystal finally ran into the one guy who could throw him under the bus for a change....

I know many, many Lieutenants and Captains who were abused by him are laughing their mf'ing asses off. This beer is for all of you guys.

Anonymous said...

OK, after reading the article a couple of times... Here's a take you won't read anywhere else:

His staff screwed him.

After all the "manic pace", abuse and "staff burnout", they screwed McChrystal. Hard.

"If you strike a king, you must kill him."

Well played (golf clap).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, both of the above are from "Gray", if you couldn't tell....


Anonymous said...

Sorry. I've got more:

From the Rolling Stone Article:

He carries a custom-made set of nunchucks in his convoy engraved with his name and four stars, and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee


No way.... Are you kidding me!? Oh, somebody made that up to screw him. Well played.


Anonymous said...

Oh, dear God.... It is true.


I double-down on my belief that his staff screwed him for the Greater Good.


Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you, Gray. I very much appreciate your take on the situation. Especially since it provides us with an angle that no one has ever explored in the commentary that I have read.

For my part I find it thoroughly persuasive... though we are still left with the question of who allowed a reporter from Rolling Stone to hang out with them?? Assuming that McChrystal approved the reporter, and knew who he was, what could he have been thinking?