- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
By John Hannah
My old boss, Dick Cheney, gave a speech last night blasting the Obama administration’s national security policy. One of his many targets was an interview that Rahm Emanuel did with CNN this past weekend — in particular, Emanuel’s claim that President Obama’s current reassessment of Afghan policy was, for the first time ever, airing certain first-order questions about U.S. strategy. For officials of the previous administration, the objectionable portions of Emanuel’s remarks included the following:
And when you go through all the analysis, it’s clear that basically we had a war for eight years that was going on, that’s adrift. That we’re beginning at scratch, and just from the starting point, after eight years. … And the president is asking the questions that have never been asked on the civilian side, the political side, the military side, and the strategic side. What is the impact on the region? What can the Afghan government do or not do? Where are we on the police training? Could that be something the Europeans do? Should we take the military side? Those are the questions that have not been asked. And before you commit troops . . . before you make that decision, there’s a set of questions that have to have answers that have never been asked. And it’s clear after eight years of war, that’s basically starting from the beginning, and those questions never got asked.
The first problem with Emanuel’s charge, of course, is the inconvenient fact that the Obama administration, itself, already conducted an exhaustive review of Afghan policy this past spring. Remember? The one that had the president on March 27 unveiling a “comprehensive, new strategy” that “marks the conclusion of a careful policy review.” The one that had the president sending another 21,000 American troops off to war?
If true, Emanuel’s implicit accusation that basic questions were not asked in that first review would be a shocking indictment of the administration’s own competence. If untrue, Emanuel was gratuitously insulting the professionalism of his hard-working colleagues involved in the review, presumably to advance some other agenda. Anyone familiar with the skills, experience, and stellar reputation of Bruce Riedel — who the administration hand-picked to oversee the initial assessment — knows full well that the first possibility is out of the question. Rest assured that all the questions Emanuel asserts have simply never, ever been asked before about U.S. strategy were indeed asked in the course of Riedel’s efforts.
Of course, Emanuel’s real target here was – surprise! — the Bush administration. President Obama has come under heated criticism for wavering in the face of General McChrystal’s recommendation for a large troop increase in Afghanistan. But it’s not wavering at all, Emanuel assures us. It’s purely a matter of the president acting responsibly and performing necessary due diligence — basic Policy 101 sort of stuff that his predecessor in the White House never did before sending Americans into harm’s way.
The problem with this claim is that it’s as untrue (and slanderous) with respect to the Bush administration as it is with respect to the Riedel review. As Cheney pointed out last night, the fact is that President Bush ordered a comprehensive review of America ‘s faltering Afghan policy in the early fall of 2008. That October, the Washington Post reported that the review’s purpose was to “return to basic questions”:
What are our objectives in Afghanistan ? What can we hope to achieve? What are our resources? What is our allies’ role? What do we know about the enemy? How likely is it that weak Afghan and Pakistani governments will rise to the occasion?
The review was led by Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush’s deputy national security advisor for Afghanistan and Iraq. It brought together officials from the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Intelligence Community, and every other civilian agency concerned with Afghan policy. The review lasted for weeks and exhaustively examined all angles of U.S. strategy. In addition to its internal discussions, the group received briefings from the likes of Afghanistan ‘s Defense Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, and (Ret.) General Dave Barno, the first commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The review included a trip by Lute to the AfPak theater to test some of the emerging recommendations with our political and military leaders on the ground. Its deliberations were ruthlessly self-critical of severe shortcomings in the war effort and argued the need for urgent changes in American strategy, in particular a far more robust counter-insurgency effort. All the questions that Emanuel raised with CNN were in fact raised during the Bush review, in addition to an array of others.
The Bush effort was provided to the incoming Obama administration during last year’s transition, including its finding — based on an initial request for additional forces submitted by then-commanding General McKiernan — that more U.S. troops would be needed to conduct a successful counterinsurgency strategy. On that question, my understanding is that President Bush was fully prepared to defer to the wishes of President-elect Obama and do whatever would make the new administration’s job easier; that is, Bush was fully prepared either to shoulder the decision to order more U.S. forces to Afghanistan before leaving office or he would leave that critical call to President Obama, giving the new administration a chance to conduct its own comprehensive review of the situation. The Obama team, quite understandably, opted for the latter course and President Bush deferred to their wishes — as he invariably did on virtually every major question during the transition in his determined effort to make it one of the smoothest and most cooperative in American history.
As Cheney suggested in his remarks yesterday, anyone reading both documents would find significant overlap in the Bush review from 2008 and the review that the Obama administration conducted this past spring. One reason that’s not particularly surprising is that Doug Lute, who was in charge of the Bush review, was also a major player in the initial Obama assessment. Indeed, Lute continues to serve on President Obama’s national security council staff with responsibility for the Afghan portfolio. Perhaps Rahm Emanuel should ask Lute to refresh his memory by taking the short walk over to Emanuel’s White House office with a copy of the Bush review. Emanuel could also draw on the expertise of any number of the other participants in the Bush effort, many of whom continue to work for the Obama administration, including at senior levels. I’m also quite sure that some of those who have subsequently left government service, such as former State Department Counselor, Eliot Cohen, former advisor on counter-insurgency, David Kilcullen, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Jim Shinn, would also be happy to talk to Emanuel about their work on the 2008 Bush assessment and the wide range of issues that were studied.
None of this, of course, should obfuscate the fact that the Afghan war effort was in dire shape by the close of the Bush administration. An urgent course correction was required. President Obama quite courageously decided to do exactly that last spring when he accepted the recommendations of the Riedel review, opted to pursue a fully-resourced counter-insurgency strategy, and put in place a commanding general committed to carrying that strategy out. In response, conservative national security experts in general — and former Bush administration officials, in particular — were quite vocal in their support of the president, applauding his gritty determination to buck the advice of many in his own party and do what was necessary to fight and win the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
What has people criticizing the administration now is the endless public hand-wringing about whether to support its hand-picked commander in doing what’s urgently required to implement a strategy that President Obama himself announced to the world less than six months ago. The key things that have changed in the interim — the badly flawed Afghan presidential election and rapidly declining public support for the war effort, especially within the president’s own Democratic Party — were both developments subject to the Obama administration’s influence and control, not the Bush administration’s. It’s President Obama’s performance as commander-in-chief and wartime leader, both at home and abroad, that is now in the spotlight and it’s clearly causing the administration real discomfort. Trying to deflect attention from that serious problem by leveling new, politicized charges against its predecessor that are so demonstrably spurious is unlikely to help much. It should stop so that the Obama administration and the country can get back to the deadly serious business of how best to protect and defend our interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the broader war on terrorism.
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