- By Peter Feaver
President Obama’s Afghanistan decision sounded the death-knell to two storylines. They are dead, at least for now, but not, I suspect, gone forever.
The first storyline is one I had peddled myself: the curious disappearance of the vice president from the major foreign policy action of 2011. Whether it was the Arab Spring, the war (excuse me, the minor overseas contingency operation that doesn’t rise to the level of armed hostilities) in Libya, or the tough-but-right call to take out bin Laden with SEALs rather than with airstrikes — in all of those dramas, Biden played no more than a bit part.
Well, whether that storyline ever had much validity before, it sure does not now. Biden is back. In on the record briefings, White House officials are touting Biden’s role in Obama’s decision to overrule his generals and shift backwards to a light-footprint-focus-on-terrorism posture. (By the way, this "new" posture bears more than a passing resemblance to the one Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld put in place from 2002-2006 — the one that candidate Obama decried as inadequate.)
It is surely significant that this is the first major foreign policy move in a long time that White House handlers are linking to Biden’s influence. If it turns out well, then perhaps the where-is-Biden storyline will be buried for good. If not, perhaps he will fade into the background in much the way Obama’s campaign arguments about Afghanistan have faded away.
Which brings us to the second OBE storyline: the old "war of necessity, war of choice" trope. I never bought into it because, as a framework for analyzing national security, it was hopelessly tautological. All wars are wars of choices. Even if the enemy is pouring across the Rio Grande — or parachuting into Colorado — one always has the choice of whether to fight or surrender. If the "war of necessity" concept had real analytical content, then no serious policymaker would oppose launching the war and every serious policymaker would insist on fighting the war until successful. But that is not how the framework is used. At least, that is not how Obama has used it.
Instead, Obama deployed the language to demonstrate that his ongoing opposition to the Iraq war — he both opposed launching the Iraq war and opposed implementing the surge which was intended to end the war on a successful basis — did not mean he was soft on national security. On the contrary, he merely opposed waging and winning wars of choice. As proof, he promised to reject the Rumsfeldian light-footprint-focus-on-terrorism posture and implement instead a fully resourced COIN campaign designed to end the war of necessity, the war in Afghanistan, on a successful basis.
Such "necessity" language, and the conviction that goes along with it, was missing from Obama’s latest Afghanistan speech. And with good reason. If the war were so necessary, wouldn’t it be necessary to win it? Obama didn’t talk about winning. He talked about leaving.
I suppose a war of necessity can be one that it is necessary to launch, but not necessary to win. If so, that is a nuance that I have not seen explicitly explained before.
The "war of necessity, war of choice" storyline is dead, but it will be revived again and again because the framework, while a poor guide to strategy, is a useful rhetorical device. It neatly simplifies tough national security decisions into bumper-sticker labels. It allows a politician (or pundit) to praise wars he supports and criticize wars he does not support and make it sound like he is doing so for strategic reasons that go beyond "this is a war I support and that is a war I do not support."
In the meantime, however, the Obama team is not likely to talk about Afghanistan as a war of necessity. If the last three years are any guide, they might not talk much about Afghanistan at all. And if they do, it now appears that it will be Vice President Biden who will do most of the talking.