Our Follower in Chief?

Why President Obama’s strange detachment from Afghanistan policymaking is a big problem.

BY Stephen R. Weissman

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The upcoming Afghanistan policy review should command President Obama's full attention. Yet up to now, he has appeared significantly detached from internal administration debate.

While the results of the November election have curtailed President Barack Obama’s influence over domestic affairs, he can still control U.S. war policy in Afghanistan. But his power will prove mainly theoretical if he offers the same weak leadership during the administration’s planned December review of U.S. war policy as he did in last year’s strategy meetings, which culminated in the dispatch of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Furthermore, it is increasingly clear that by deferring to the predominant views of his advisers, Obama is taking large risks with both his record and his party’s prospects in 2012.

The planned assessment was supposed to determine “the progress and proof of the [U.S.] operational concept.” It is already clear, however, that there will be no “proof” of the effectiveness of counterinsurgency policy. Regarding “progress,” some in the military profess cautious optimism. But key U.S. intelligence agencies are signaling strong skepticism.

What’s more, polling over the last 18 months has established that most Americans oppose the war and do not think it worth the costs, which include adding over $100 billion a year to the budget deficit. The Democratic base (whose enthusiastic support was missing in the just-concluded election) is particularly estranged: currently two thirds of Democrats think the war is not worth its costs. This was reflected in last summer’s vote by three-fifths of House Democrats for an amendment insisting that the administration present a timetable for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Exit polls indicated that 9 percent of Democratic voters in the congressional elections considered the war in Afghanistan “the most important issue facing the country,” even though it was hardly discussed during the campaign.

The current review should command the president’s full attention. Yet up to now, he has appeared significantly detached from internal administration debate over the escalating conflict. In Bob Woodward’s blow-by-blow account of ten presidentially-chaired National Security Council sessions during the fall of 2009, (based on official Meeting Notes and interviews with participants), Obama behaved more like the moderator of a presidential debate than a chief executive with a strategic view of foreign policy.

In lengthy meetings with top advisers, Obama displayed the intelligence and awareness of substantive issues that we have come to expect. He asked all the right questions: Do we need all of the troops requested? What effect will that have on other administration goals? Should our mission be to defeat the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda? How can we do that given the overcentralized Afghan government’s pattern of corrupt governance? What impact would U.S. success have on the stability of Pakistan, and can we persuade that government to terminate safe havens for the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda?

Yet throughout, the president never offered his own opinions about how the important issues might best be resolved. And he almost never brought up any relevant perspectives on these matters gained from his reading of history, past membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or conversations with foreign leaders. When members of his team proposed answers and solutions, he failed to adequately probe the bases for their positions. For example, all the advisers agreed that a successful counterinsurgency was endangered by Afghan government corruption and meager results from military training. Proponents of military escalation offered only vague solutions such as “working” on the Hamid Karzai government (though there were “no guarantees”) or “blending with local culture.” Rather than drilling down into the details and likely consequences of these nostrums, Obama moved on.

In only one major area did the president make definitive statements: that of American politics. He insisted on a timeline to draw down his military surges within a few years to maintain public support. Thus Obama’s major substantive contribution to administration policy was the establishment of an 18-month timeline to “begin” reducing U.S. forces “based on progress on the ground.” For the rest, he accepted the hawkish views of the majority of his advisers, notably the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–overruling powerful dissents by Vice-President Joseph Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry.

To appreciate the value that a fully engaged president can bring to war councils, one has only to look at records of President John F. Kennedy’s White House meetings with his adviser corps concerning Vietnam in 1961, his first year in office. Resisting their inclination to insert American combat forces, Kennedy put forth and discussed his personal conclusions from past, unsuccessful land wars in Asia, cautions he received from foreign leaders, an analysis of the differences between the Vietnamese and Korean conflicts, and strategic concern about the potential of having to fight simultaneous wars in Asia and Europe – as well as domestic political constraints.

As the obstacles to American success in Afghanistan become more apparent, the issues identified in last year’s review remain salient. Obama needs to personally grapple with them and debate them with his advisers. The most urgent policy question now is not how to implement the president’s vague commitment to “begin” troop withdrawals in July. Rather, as world-class scholars of Afghanistan politics and many European officials suggest, it is: Should the U.S. undertake an effort to achieve a broad, regionally supported political settlement that incorporates the Taliban but excludes Al Qaeda?

It would be tragic if the man who became president (and elevated his party’s congressional majority) because he seemed to think “outside the box” and come to the right judgment on the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, failed to do the same for his own war in Afghanistan.


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Stephen R. Weissman, former staff director of the House Subcommittee on Africa, is the author of two books on U.S. foreign policy, including A Culture of Deference: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy. His recent articles on U.S. policies towards Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Congo and South Africa have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Intelligence and National Security, Politico, Roll Call, The Hill and in Foreign Policy in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Security, Diplomacy and Trade, eds. Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk.

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