Obama Pursuing the "Least Bad Option"?

What happened last week at West Point? In making his decision on Afghanistan, did President Obama accept that the essence of strategy is to see the least-bad option and pursue it with resolution? Or did he get boxed in to a position he didn't like, is prepared to walk away from, and is determined to avoid in the future?

First, the case for grim determination. The most compelling evidence is that the White House has given Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the on-scene commander in Afghanistan, a good portion of the troop surge he asked for. Indeed, the president used the "s" word, intentionally, to describe his decision. Most importantly, he not only used it in the speech, in public, as a political calculation, but in the deliberations that led to the decision. That he wanted to be able to call his increased commitment a "surge"--recalling the Bush strategy for Iraq that Obama opposed--is significant.

There is no doubt that the political left was exceptionally grumpy about what it sees as an "escalation."

A second important indicator has been the post-speech debate about what the July 2011 troop-withdrawal date really means. To be sure, 18 months might be an eternity in Afghanistan (or at least in terms of America's role there), but it has become clear that the working interpretation is that the date will mark the beginning of a drawdown, not its completion, and that the scope and pace of reductions will depend upon the strategic situation at the time and conditions on the ground.

These are talking points that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has hammered both in congressional testimony and to the media, with Gen. David Petraeus seconding the point on weekend political talk shows. There is every reason to believe that McChrystal will have enough forces to achieve his most important operational goals: building upon past progress in eastern Afghanistan and wresting the initiative from the Taliban in the south.

A third measure of Obama's progress would be seen in a shaking out of his national security team and, in particular, the beginnings of a workable civil-military relationship. The inside-the-Beltway betting in the spring was that National Security Adviser James Jones was the most likely first casualty of the Obama administration, that Gates might be gone by the end of the year, and that "AfPak czar" Richard Holbrooke would be a Cardinal Woolsey, a power behind the throne. Now the salon buzz has Holbrooke as the dead man walking, Jones relatively secure and Gates deeply involved in the direction of the Afghanistan surge. The argument for civ-mil respect, if not comity, lies in the weight ultimately given to McChrystal's recommendations, Petraeus' credibility on counterinsurgency operations, and the calming influence of Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was an Iraq surge skeptic but has been a forceful advocate of an Afghan surge.

The contrary case rests upon a different reading of these same three meters. In this interpretation, the heaviest factor in Obama's decision was American domestic politics, and in particular his attempts to placate the left wing of the Democratic Party, his supposed base. There is no doubt that the political left was exceptionally grumpy about what it sees as an "escalation"-- they never miss a chance to refight the Vietnam War--with moviemaker Michael Moore's open letter to the president marked "Exhibit A." But a more lasting representation of elite liberal opinion is to be found in a recent New Yorker column from Hendrik Hertzberg, titled "Bad Choices." He can live with Obama's plan to bring the war in Afghanistan to a "non-disastrous end."

The most compelling evidence of an attenuated administration commitment is, of course, the July 2011 withdrawal date. Even if the "Gates interpretation" counts as current doctrine, it also seems likely that, if the war is perceived not to be going well, that there may be very little stomach for hanging tough; the worse things are, the faster the drawdown likely will be.

Tougher times might easily provoke renewed infighting among Obama's "Team of Rivals." Most worrisome, the foundations have been laid for increased civil-military tensions. White House politicos are angry about the leak of the McChrystal assessment, and have threatened payback in the press. Conversely, there's much unhappiness in uniform resulting form administration counterleaks about McChrystal.

In sum, what happened last week at West Point won't matter nearly so much as what will happen in Kandahar and Helmand in the next two years. But at least West Point has given McChrystal a chance--and Petraeus a second chance after Iraq--to shape American policy by victories in battle. Sometimes, good tactics do make strategy.

Thomas Donnelly is a resident fellow at AEI.

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