Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama is learning in Afghanistan what Bush faced in Iraq

By Peter Feaver The New York Times is reporting today that the Obama team is seeking to elevate military tools and relegate non-military tools like development and diplomacy to the backburner in Afghanistan. Many will read this story and react to the apparent contradiction with the Obama team’s campaign critique that the Bush Administration erred ...

By Peter Feaver

By Peter Feaver

The New York Times is reporting today that the Obama team is seeking to elevate military tools and relegate non-military tools like development and diplomacy to the backburner in Afghanistan. Many will read this story and react to the apparent contradiction with the Obama team’s campaign critique that the Bush Administration erred by following precisely that military vs. civilian formula in the overall global war on terror.

That is not the part that struck me most, however, and not merely because I understand that the "Bush overmilitarized the war on terror" critique is a bogus one. (I will, of course, be eagerly watching for the anti-Bushies at home and abroad to lambaste the Obama team with the same zeal that they went after the Bush team on this point, but I also won’t be holding my breath.)

Rather, the part that struck me was the explicit decision to cut the long-term vs. short-term trade-off more squarely on the side of seeking short-term goals in Afghanistan. As President Bush’s and now President Obama’s Secretary of Defense put it, the Bush strategy in Afghanistan had been focused on goals "too broad and too far into the future."

Of course, the standard anti-Bush critique has been the opposite: that there was too much attention paid to short-term issues and not enough emphasis on the long-term. My friend and Shadow colleague, Aaron Friedberg, was one among many making this charge against Bush. I always found that charge overdrawn. There was far more long-term strategizing going on than critics admitted, but it was useful in drawing attention to an important trade-off that the Times story suggests the Obama team is confronting right now: long-term strategies must be robust enough to guard against short-term setbacks.

The problem in Iraq from 2005-2007, was not the absence of a strategy.  We had a good one that largely reflected a bipartisan consensus. Even Tom Ricks — to invoke another friend, another FP colleague, and no slouch as an anti-Bushie — thought that we had reached the right strategy (albeit way too late). The strategy was undeniably focused on the long-term, sustainable goal of transitioning to Iraqi leadership.  The problem, which the President and the White House came to realize sooner than most other players inside or outside, was that the long-term goal in Iraq was unachievable if the short-term violence spiraled further out of control.

What was needed was a whole new strategy, one that deferred long-term goals of transitioning to Iraqi leadership in favor of short-term goals of protecting the Iraqi population: the new strategy that became known as the surge. I argued at the time that this was, in fact, the best long-term strategy because it allowed for a future shift back to the long-term sustainable path (as we are now seeing), but it was resisted both inside and outside because, among other reasons, it front-loaded so much cost. It seemed to privilege the short-term over the long-term.

In a similar way, most of the other non-Iraq long-term strategizing that we did led back to a focus on the short-term situation in Iraq.  You ask me to devise a long-term strategy for the Middle East focused on 2012?  My first question back is, "what is your assumption about the situation in Iraq in 2012?" Your answer to that question is the decisive branching node that determines which long-term Middle East strategy is the best.

The Times story suggests that the Obama team is facing a similar moment in Afghanistan. The United States has long-term goals in Afghanistan, but no strategy to reach them is viable if Afghanistan spirals out of control in the short-run. I am not sure the Obama team has or will cut the trade-off exactly right, but I have great sympathy for the dilemma they confront. And so I, for one, am willing to cut them a lot of slack when they make the same choices Bush made, even if those are the very choices they loudly denounced a few months back.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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