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A civil-military headache from the VP debate that could linger

A civil-military headache from the VP debate that could linger

The Obama administration has a civil-military problem and, I have reason to believe, they know it. Significant portions of the military believe the administration abandoned them on Iraq, sent them unsupported into battle in Afghanistan hampered by a politically driven timeline, and is jeopardizing national security with unsustainably deep cuts in military spending.

If Obama wins a second term, he and his national security team will have a lot of remedial work to do to repair relations with the military.

I think Vice President Biden made that job even more difficult with his remarkable comments in each of those areas in the VP debate.

On Iraq, Biden criticized Romney-Ryan for recommending that we have a 30,000 stay-behind force in Iraq. When Ryan pointed out that the Obama administration had actually been trying to negotiate a stay-behind force, Biden just smiled mockingly at him, as if Ryan were talking nonsense.

But Ryan was not talking nonsense. The official position of the Obama administration until late in 2011 was that they were seeking a Status of Forces Agreement (SoFA) to permit a stay-behind force in Iraq. The exact size was in doubt, but the 30,000 figure was what the military wanted and the White House supported the concept, if not the exact number. The Obama administration wanted this for the very same reason the Bush administration wanted it: It was the best way to solidify the gains of the Iraq surge and to build a stable partnership with Iraq.

Biden knows all of this because he was leading the effort to negotiate the SOFA. Was Biden’s mocking smile saying something else, perhaps that Obama was never seriously committed to negotiating a successful SOFA? Was Obama’s decision to delegate this task to Biden a sign of how committed Obama was to it? Or how uncommitted he was? Was Biden’s guarantee that he would get the SOFA just idle bragging from someone assigned a trivial task?

The U.S. military leadership believed they accomplished something significant in the Iraq surge, and they believed that the Obama administration wanted to get them a SOFA that would help secure those accomplishments. Did Biden tell them otherwise in the debate last night? Or did Biden, as Ryan pointedly asked, simply fail at his SOFA assignment, in which case the mocking laughter is beyond inappropriate?

On Afghanistan, Biden’s comments were even more troubling. Let’s set aside the extraordinary "mission accomplished" boast, a remarkable thing to say when American men and women continue to risk their lives under very dire circumstances in theater. Biden got away with it, and neither Ryan nor the hapless Martha Raddatz called him out on it.

Where things really got dicey was when, in response to the charge that the Afghan surge withdrawal timeline was driven by political considerations, Biden tried to hide behind the military. Raddatz pressed him on the complaints she is hearing — we all are hearing — but Biden dismissed it as nonsense. He pretended that the withdrawal timeline was proposed by the Joint Chiefs rather than imposed by the White House.

That is not true. The Joint Chiefs and the Afghan combatant commander did go along with the White House order, but they proposed a slower, conditions-based timeline and they certainly did not want it announced at the outset.

This is a very dangerous game to play. Because of the strong support for the principle of civilian control among our armed forces, civilians can and do make the military salute and obey orders the military think are inadvisable. Canny commanders-in-chief try to minimize those instances, working with the military to cajole and bargain them into supporting positions that they initially opposed (this is exactly what Bush did with the Iraq surge). But when the White House bigfoots a decision, as the Obama White House did multiple times on Afghanistan, it is the president who must shoulder the political load for the decision.

Biden knows, or should know, that from the military’s perspective President Obama imposed an under-resourced Afghan surge, undercut it by announcing the timeline, and interrupted the last fighting season by accelerating the withdrawal. That was his prerogative as commander-in-chief. But if that policy is criticized, as Ryan did in the debate, the Obama White House must be honest about how it came about. Biden cannot pretend that this was the military’s plan all along.

Biden tried the same gambit on the defense cuts: "That was the decision of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended to us and agreed to by the president. That is a fact….They made the recommendation first."

Yet, as he surely knows, the White House came up with a budget cut number and then asked the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that number. The defense department did not come up with the budget cuts first, they came up with the strategy that they thought, barely, could be viable under those cuts. (Defense had come up with defense cuts on their own earlier, in the hopes that those cuts could be reassigned to more pressing defense priorities, but the Obama White House simply pocketed those cuts and then directed more.)

It gets worse. When Biden and Obama say "defense spending the military didn’t ask for’ that is incorrect since the military did ask for all that spending — in the previous year’s budget. Actually, Obama asked for it, since it was his budget request. Yes, the following year Obama changed his mind and he ordered the military to adjust to the lower cuts.

I am not sure there are enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading it is to order the military to accept cuts and then pretend that they requested those cuts.

And, dissembling aside, when you play political hardball with the military in that fashion it almost always leads to problems down the line. Serious Obama national security professionals understand this, but they don’t seem to have any influence on what the candidates are saying.

Again, it is fully proper as a matter of civil-military relations for the president to impose cuts on Defense, and he can do it in whatever sequence he chooses. But he should not impose the number, receive the military salute, and then turn around and tell the American people that this was all the military’s idea.

An administration enjoying strong and healthy relations with the military can probably get away with self-inflicted wounds of the sort that Biden’s remarks produced. I am not sure this administration can afford it.