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“Military All In But Obama Wasn’t”

Back in late 2009, when President Obama announced that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan but only for 18 months, many conservatives were highly critical of his decision, arguing that the president did not have the temperament to wage a war successfully and that he was only going to throw away troops’ lives needlessly without trying to achieve victory. I was not one of them. I was willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, and I supported the president’s move as a way to arrest the decline in Afghanistan. Having sent more troops and first-rate commanders—first Stanley McChrystal, then David Petraeus, now John Allen—I thought that Obama was committed to a successful outcome  and could not risk backing down without calling one of his major commitments into question.

I still think the surge was the right thing to do because it arrested the Taliban’s momentum in southern Afghanistan and at least gives breathing room for the development of Afghan National Security Forces. But in retrospect, it is obvious that the president’s critics were more right than wrong. For evidence look no further than this excerpt from New York Times reporter David Sanger’s new book, which, as Jonathan discussed yesterday, appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times. It quotes an unnamed Obama adviser as follows: “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

Then Sanger writes that “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The critical decisions about drawing down troops—with 32,000 departing by the end of September 2012—were apparently made by political aides in the White House without consulting General Petraeus in Afghanistan or other generals or, until the very end, Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton.

This is breathtaking. Commanders on the ground and senior officials at the Department of Defense are not always right, and their recommendations do not always have to be followed by a president. But the commander-in-chief at least has an obligation to solicit their views and take them into careful consideration. Apparently Obama didn’t do that because he wanted to avoid the leaks that attended his previous decision-making process on Afghanistan in the fall of 2009. So he decided to end the surge in September 2012, which Sanger erroneously describes as “after the summer fighting season” (the fighting season actually lasts until late October or early November) and accurately describes as “before the election.” Meaning, of course, our presidential election.

This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics—namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge—about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.

Rest assured that if George W. Bush had so nakedly put his own political calculations front and center in making national security policy, he would have been flayed by the news media. Indeed, he was flayed for the “Mission Accomplished” banner and for supposedly invoking 9/11 for partisan advantage—and, most ironically of all, for supposedly disregarding the advice of senior generals by sending too few troops to Iraq. But Obama, it seems, is getting a pass for not even bothering to consult the very generals he appointed.


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