Obama vs. the Generals

Summary:  Guest author Bernard Finel examines the public excerpts from the latest book of Woodward, stenographer to the greats of our Versailles-on-the-Potomac.  What does this tell us about Obama?  Nothing good.  Nothing we did not already suspect.

A lot of people have been pitching the revelations in the Woodward book as Obama vs. the Generals.  But, if it was a contest, it wasn’t much of one.  The Gates, Mullen, Petraeus troika dug in their feed for a major escalation (on top of an initial 19,000 man increase, ordered immediately after Obama came into office), and Obama was apparently left floundering about — falling back on political constraints to limit the commitment.  Really, the president could not come off worse than he does from the Woodward book.

Obama allowed the military to simply stonewall him on providing an alternative to a large escalation in Afghanistan.

“So what’s my option? You have given me one option,” Obama said, directly challenging the military leadership at the table, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command.
“We were going to meet here today to talk about three options,” Obama said sternly. “You agreed to go back and work those up.”
Mullen protested. “I think what we’ve tried to do here is present a range of options.”
Obama begged to differ. Two weren’t even close to feasible, they all had acknowledged; the other two were variations on the 40,000.
Silence descended on the room. Finally, Mullen said, “Well, yes, sir.”  Mullen later explained, “I didn’t see any other path.”

Then, when the President finally gets them to brief something of an alternative — still involving a 20,000 man additional commitment, he allows himself to get talked out of considering it due to a war game that was so rigged that LTG Douglas Lute – in theory the point man for the President on Afghanistan in the NSC (also a Bush holdover, btw) – boycotted it:

When word of the hybrid option reached Obama, he instructed Gates and Mullen to present it. Mullen had other ideas. He used a classified war game exercise – code-named Poignant Vision and held at the Pentagon on Oct. 14, 2009 – to support his case against the option.  Believing the game was rigged, Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Obama’s representative from the National Security Council, boycotted it. According to participants, Poignant Vision did not have the rigor of a traditional war game, in which two teams square off. This exercise was a four-hour seminar.

Mullen and Petraeus both attended, as did Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair, a retired admiral who had once headed the Pentagon’s war gaming agency. Blair had suggested the game, thinking it might help in assessing various troop levels.  As the exercise ended, Blair hinted at its limitations. “Well, this is a good warm-up,” he said. “When is the next game?”

But in the end, the President let Gen. Petraeus using this “war game” as a key argument against the hybrid model.  Obama seems to have had an intuitive feel that the proposal he was being given was not in the national interest.  He balks at the price tag.  He promises not to leave the situation to his successor.  Woodward seems to suggest that Obama would have preferred a smaller training mission in Afghanistan:

The military did not understand, he said. “It’d be a lot easier for me to go out and give a speech saying, ‘You know what? The American people are sick of this war, and we’re going to put in 10,000 trainers because that’s how we’re going to get out of there.’ ”  It was apparent that a part of Obama wanted to give precisely that speech. He seemed to be road-testing it.

Donilon said Gates might resign if the decision was 10,000 trainers, an option the military leaders had all rejected in the early stages of the review.  “That would be the difficult part,” Obama said, “because Bob Gates is . . .there’s no stronger member of my national security team.”  No one said anything more about that possibility.

But, he backs away out of fear that Gates might resign! The difficult part isn’t sending 30,000 men to Afghanistan.  The “difficult part” is that Secretary Gates might resign if he doesn’t!  Of course, pitching it as the politically “easier” option was hardly likely to win over the confidence of the brass.  But the bigger issue is that Obama gave Bob Gates — President Bush’s Secretary of Defense — veto power over his decision on Afghanistan.  Extraordinary.

Now, I don’t know whether Woodward has the story right.  Maybe he’s spinning to sell books.  I don’t know.  But the message that comes out of this strikes me as clear.  The President lacks confidence in his national security judgments.  He feels he need approval from a “grownup” in the form of a Republican Secretary of Defense.  The President may think this signals a balanced and thoughtful judgment.  What it signals to me is doubt.  And believe me, what it signals to others, in the military, is that Democrats and liberals can’t be trusted on national security.  They can’t be trusted because they don’t even trust themselves.

This is going to be a common sentiment.  Bush may have been wrongheaded, but he was decisive and a leader.  Obama is more careful and analytical, but ultimately needs approval from others.  I just don’t know that you can command the respect of your national security professionals if you allow them to stonewall you, rig analytical exercises, and then win debates through threats of resignation. 

Worse, you can’t command respect when you’re final decision is announced like this:

Under the redefined mission, Obama told Gates, the best I can do is 30,000. “This is what I’m willing to take on, politically,” the president said.

Wow.  Not a strategic decision.  A political one. 

After Obama came into office, the military asked for 19,000 more troops (which they got) and 40,000 (of which they got 30,000).  Some people will call that “splitting the difference.”  I call it turning over strategic decision-making on Afghanistan to the military.  And look, that’s fine.  Had President Obama run for office saying, “Look, I don’t know much about military affairs. And frankly, I don’t think we Democrats can be trusted to make decisions of war and peace.  So, my role as commander in chief will be largely to rubber stamp recommendations coming from the military and Bob Gates,” then at least there would have been no surprises. 

But that isn’t how Obama ran for office.  He ran for office making a lot of powerful, sophisticated assessments of international affairs.  And in the Woodward book, he comes off as someone who has very good instincts about Afghanistan – e.g. wanting to minimize the commitment, develop an exit strategy, focus on training.  He has the brains and the instincts to make the right decisions, but apparently not the confidence to impose his will on the national security bureaucracy.  If Woodward’s reporting is accurate, it is very, very disappointing.

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 Obama vs. his generals

About the policies of the Obama Administration

  1. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other, 7 February 2008 — Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.
  2. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008 — The 7th year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being what nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Obama.
  3. Obama describes the first step to America’s renewal, 8 August 2008 — Obama’s statement about America may be the simple truth; this may be why so many find it disturbing.
  4. These days all American Presidents are War Presidents (part 2), 13 September 2008
  5. These days all US Presidents are War Presidents (part 3), 23 November 2008
  6. Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009
  7. Stand by for the Obama implosion, 9 December 2009
  8. Obama, a disciple of Reagan’s foreign policy, 12 June 2010

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