The duties and responsibilities of commander-in-chief have never come easily to Barack Obama. We saw it in 2009, when the president struggled for months, seemingly unable to make a decision on the surge of troops in Afghanistan. Eventually he (mostly) agreed to the requests of his military commanders, but in the process Obama put in place an arbitrary, self-imposed and destructive timeline for withdrawal. (Marine Corps Commandant James Conway later admitted that based on intercepted communications by our enemies the announcement of an American withdrawal was “probably giving our enemy sustenance.”)
We saw it with Iraq, with the president doing almost nothing in that arena (fortunately most of the hard work had been done by his predecessor and the Status of Forces Agreement was in place). We saw it in Libya, where Obama committed America to a war against Muammar Qaddafi even as he made it clear he wanted the United States to “lead from behind.” And we saw it again last night, when the president announced he would be withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by next summer – which happens to be the summer before the presidential election.
The decision itself is, on the merits, indefensible. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an extraordinary (and gutsy) admission today, saying the president’s faster-than-expected drawdown of U.S. forces incurs more risk than the military’s top officer was initially prepared to accept. “I would prefer not to discuss the specifics of the private advice I rendered with respect to these decisions,” Mullen said in prepared remarks he is scheduled to deliver to Congress today. “As I said, I support them. What I can tell you is, the president’s decisions are more aggressive and incur more risk than I was originally prepared to accept.” [emphasis added]
And no wonder. President Obama’s actions threaten to undo the significant (but fragile) gains we have made in southern Afghanistan and undermine the offensive we were planning in the east. It sends a signal to both our allies and our enemies Obama has lost interest in this war and America is heading for the exit ramp. This will strengthen the hand of the Taliban, demoralize those who have sided with us, and quite likely cause those figures within Afghanistan (and Pakistan) who had cast their lot with us to rethink their decision. It may be our military is able to salvage some measure of success in Afghanistan – but if they do, it will be in spite of, and not because of, what the president announced last night.
Among the more prescient comments about Obama on Afghanistan came from Bob Woodward, author of “Obama’s War,” who last September said of the president, “He is out of Afghanistan psychologically.” I asked then, “How many times in American history have we had a president who was out of a war psychologically, even as he was sending more young men and women to fight and to die? And how many times has it ended well?”
For a wartime president to hold the mindset Obama does, which has resulted in a half-assed prosecution of the war, is among the more unsettling things I have seen in my career in politics. And so, I might add, is the transparent political calculation in Obama’s decision.
During the process leading up to the original Afghan surge, former National Security Advisor James Jones criticized the role of the “campaign set,” which he also dubbed the “Politburo” and the “mafia.” An Obama adviser told the New York Times’ Peter Baker, “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics. [Obama] would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform, and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.” And then there was Obama’s admission to Senator Lindsey Graham that the outcome of the review was based on partisan considerations. “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party,” he reportedly told Graham.
I have the advantage of having served a president during wartime. And whatever faults one might be tempted to lay at the feet of George W. Bush, he never allowed politics of the Obama kind to infect his decisions. I know of what I speak. In September 2006, with the midterm elections approaching and the war of Iraq floundering, Senator Mitch McConnell, then the Republic whip, asked to see the president alone in the Oval Office. “Mr. President,” McConnell said, “your unpopularity is going to cost us control of Congress.” When President Bush asked McConnell what to do about it, McConnell said, “Bring some troops home from Iraq.”
Four months later, Senator McConnell got his reply. President Bush – who faced far more ferocious political opposition to the war than Obama ever has – not only did not withdraw troops; he increased them while embracing a strategy that came to be known as the “surge.” And he blocked every attempt at a premature withdrawal.
There are many factors that explain why the Iraq war turned around, but the fortitude of President Bush surely ranks high among them. That quality looked impressive then; it looks even more impressive now.