Shadow Government

Obama’s race against time (and some Democrats) on Afghanistan

By Peter Feaver I have not done a scientific sample of immediate blog reaction (if that isn’t an oxymoron) to President Obama’s decision to replace battlefield commanders in Afghanistan, and my initial impression is that there is a subtle but discernible partisan/ideological divide in the responses. Republicans/conservatives/pro-war-types have generally applauded or at least provisionally endorsed ...

By Peter Feaver

I have not done a scientific sample of immediate blog reaction (if that isn’t an oxymoron) to President Obama’s decision to replace battlefield commanders in Afghanistan, and my initial impression is that there is a subtle but discernible partisan/ideological divide in the responses. Republicans/conservatives/pro-war-types have generally applauded or at least provisionally endorsed the decision (see, for example, Shadow colleague Tom Mahnken or the several thoughtful reactions over at the Weekly Standard), while Democrats/liberals/anti-war-types have generally expressed skepticism or worse (this is how I read the commentary over at Daily Kos or Dan Froomkin’s take). This calls to mind (at least for me) a concern I have had for some time: the hardest job regarding the war in Afghanistan may be preserving public support for continuing it.

We (meaning the Bush Administration) long struggled with bringing the Baghdad and the Washington clocks into synch with each other. The Baghdad clock ran much slower than the Washington clock, meaning that progress in Baghdad would be slower than American domestic politics demanded. Of course, in 2006 the two-clocks problem got much, much worse when the situation was actually deteriorating in both capitals — not just "too-slow" progress but a downward spiral. Yet even in 2007, after the shift in strategy and resources known as the "surge" offered the prospect of reversing the spiral in Baghdad, time was running off the DC clock so fast that the entire project hung in the balance — arguably in the hands of a few Republican Senators who were wavering between continuing to support the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge effort or joining Democrats and stopping the surge so as to "end this war."

By my calculation, the Washington clock on Afghanistan still has more time on it than the clock had on Iraq during the 2006-2007 period. But the situation is in some respects more difficult now because, (1) the Kabul clock may be running even more slowly than the Baghdad clock was running (in part because the situation in Pakistan has been deteriorating so rapidly), and (2) the clocks in London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere matter more for the war in Afghanistan than they did in Iraq, and they are running out of time very rapidly indeed.

The leadership change buys Obama some time (it adds more time on the clock) because it makes plausible the "let’s wait and see if the new guy can do something" argument. But it also subtly speeds up the clock because it draws attention to the dire situation ("if the situation weren’t so dire, would he be taking such a dramatic step?"). Like changing coaches in mid-season, it is a gamble — a worthy gamble and, the more I read about it, the more I think it was the right gamble, but a gamble nonetheless.

Which brings us back to the reaction to Obama’s military command shake-up. He may be inching towards that awkward position of finding that the chattering class from across the aisle increasingly shows more support for his war policies than does his base counterpart. Some of the same groups that wanted to end rather than win the war in Iraq are now starting to lobby to end rather than win the war in Afghanistan. In so doing, they are increasingly seeing Obama as the problem not the solution, and they are willing to work against him on these issues. That is an indication that Obama, to his great credit, seems to be making war decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq based primarily on his team’s assessment of the facts on the ground, rather than on what will serve partisan political interests. 

But it does complicate the job of building and preserving public support to continue the war — a job that is inescapably political. Obama has the rhetorical gifts and political strength to build that political support, but it will require expending time and political capital on that effort. And, if my read of the chattering class’ mood is correct, it will also require that he swim against the currents in his own party.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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