The hidden story behind “Obama’s Wars”: the insurgency in Washington

Summary:  A guest post by Bernard Finel about what might be our most important insurgency — by the Pentagon’s generals against civilian control by the President.  So far they’re winning; Obama’s losing.  This is almost inevitable.  During the past 2 generations Congress and the Presidency have lost the public’s trust, while the military has retained it.  The events described here merely reflect adjustments in this imbalance of power.

Obama’s Wars is the title of Bob Woodward’s new book.  But at least according to the excerpts, the big story is how little control Obama had over the process.  There are dozens of interesting issues that will likely come out of this book, but I’ll address just a few for now.

First, Woodward.  Whenever he writes a book, you get a certain amount of rumbling about how the reporting is slanted or inaccurate.  But look, so far, it seems like Woodward is just pulling together reporting that was already out in the public.  We knew, for instance, that the military had provided ineffective military advice to the president, refusing to even properly staff out options that reflected his preferences for an exit strategy and a limited commitment to Afghanistan.  We also knew that the NSC was not working well on Afghanistan– the high-level spats between McChrystal and Eikenberry, the botched Riedel Afghanistan review, the apparent surprise at the request for more troops in Summer 2009, etc. all told the story.  Anyway, very little new here, which of course suggests a certain core credibility for the reporting.

Second, what really jumps out at me so far is that President Obama seems to be in over his head in trying to deal with national security.  He has not been able to control the process.  He’s been manipulated by his generals.  He’s been frustrated in his efforts to put his own stamp on Afghanistan policy.  Instead of setting policy, he’s been cast in the role of fighting a rear-guard battle against the Petraeus preference for a multi-decade, nation-building commitment to Afghanistan. 

Even now, forces continue to mobilize against any effort to impose a timeline on the commitment, and frankly, it is hard to imagine Obama being able to change course before 2012.  Obama is quoted as saying, “I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars” (see here)  Right, but that is only because he’ll lose the 2012 election because of the economy, but otherwise, $1 trillion is going to seem a conservative estimate of the costs of the Afghanistan decisions of 2009.

Third, can we once and for all stop the nonesense about how Petraeus is just doing what the President wants?  How much evidence do we need that Petraeus is a free agent here, a policy entrepreneur pursuing his own foreign policy preferences?  Look, the guy is a smart guy.  Smarter than me I am sure.  But his conduct is not appropriate for a general officer.  I like this bit (from here):

During a flight in May, after a glass of wine, Petraeus told his own staffers that the administration was “[expletive] with the wrong guy.”

Naw, no civil-military issues there.  How dare the President and his staff question the wisdom of the great David Petraeus?  I really wish he would resign and run for office.  He might be the only thing between us and a President Palin, and even I could forgive him his CMR transgressions if we were to save us from that.

Fourth, can we also note that keeping Gates on has been a disaster for Obama?  Gates has been so effective at cultivating fawning press — only Petraeus is better at it — that removing him now would be difficult.  But certainly, no one would have batted an eyelash if Obama had chosen Richard Danzig or some other high-profile backer after winning the election.  Here is a case of Obama being too clever by a half.  His pick of Hillary Clinton seems to be working out better… but then again, she’s actually a Democrat, and as a general rule, you are going to be better served by people of your own party rather than people who

  • didn’t vote for you, and
  • don’t want you to win re-election.

About the author

Bernard Finel currently serves as Associate Professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College. His views are his alone and do not represent the position of the National War College, National Defense University, or the Department of Defense.

Before that he was senior fellow at the American Security Project, a non-partisan think tank located in Washington, DC.  Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the National War College and Executive Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.

At his website he writes about politics, national security, crime and justice, and social commentary.  He holds a BA in international relations from Tufts University and an MA and Ph.D. in international relations from Georgetown.

Other posts about the insurgency in Washington

First, a flurry of manufactured “news”:

Now see real analysis:

Esp note this series by David Sirota:

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