Shadow Government

Is Obama really getting rolled by the U.S. military?

By Peter Feaver My FP colleague Tom Ricks claims that President Obama was "rolled" by the military — specifically by General Odierno — when he reversed himself on the decision to release old photos that allegedly show the military abusing detainees. Ricks further claims that this is the second time Obama got "rolled" by his ...

By Peter Feaver

My FP colleague Tom Ricks claims that President Obama was "rolled" by the military — specifically by General Odierno — when he reversed himself on the decision to release old photos that allegedly show the military abusing detainees. Ricks further claims that this is the second time Obama got "rolled" by his generals, the first being when he reversed himself on his campaign pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq on an artificial "one-brigade-per-month" timeline rather than on the phased transition schedule favored by the military commanders in Iraq.

Obama undoubtedly reversed himself on these two policies. And since Ricks is a well-sourced reporter, I am prepared to accept his claim that it was the advice of generals that proved decisive in internal deliberations. I am not prepared to call this "getting rolled," however. Not yet, anyway. Ricks has to put up more evidence before I will code it that way.

Specifically, he has to show that Obama was not persuaded by the logic and evidence that comprised the military’s advice but conceded to the military out of fear of what the military would do to his policies or out of a calculation that he lacked the political power to prevail over military preferences.  Such concessions that result in military preferences prevailing over civilian preferences do happen, and when they do, I call them shirking.

Arguably, that is what happened in 1993 when President Clinton reversed himself on the gays in the military issue. There was ample evidence that Clinton was not persuaded by General Powell’s arguments and still believed gays should serve openly in the military but got rolled by the military (and by Congress, especially Senator Nunn) because he was in a politically weak position. (By the way, I was a bit surprised that Ricks did not list Obama’s decision to delay any changes to don’t-ask-don’t-tell as another possible case of "getting rolled" — it appears to meet the criteria that Ricks seems to embrace, though not the ones I would.)

It is not shirking, however, when the military is given an opportunity to present its case to the president, and the president changes his mind. Healthy civil-military relations involve civilians giving the military an opportunity to provide candid advice — check that, requiring the military to provide candid advice — and then civilians making a decision. Sometimes that decision is different from what the civilians would have made in the absence of that advice. But that is not necessarily "getting rolled." It could just be "getting informed."

My own bet is that Obama was persuaded by the argument, though I confess to a bias here. I consider myself a reasonable person, and I was persuaded by the arguments in favor of both reversals. I find it plausible that Obama is a reasonable person, too, and that he came to see the wisdom of the other side of the argument.

If Ricks has more evidence that supports the "getting rolled" judgment, I would like to see it, because it is a very serious charge. There is certainly enough tinder and kindling out there for a really serious civil-military crisis. A military capable and willing to roll the president could be a sufficient spark to light that fire. 

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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