It’s gut-check time, Mr. President
By Peter Feaver It does not look like the world will wait while we sort out healthcare. On the contrary, it is looking more and more like gut-check time for our wartime Commander-in-Chief. He is facing serious challenges in both of his major military conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, and very ominous clouds on a third ...
By Peter Feaver
By Peter Feaver
It does not look like the world will wait while we sort out healthcare. On the contrary, it is looking more and more like gut-check time for our wartime Commander-in-Chief. He is facing serious challenges in both of his major military conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan, and very ominous clouds on a third front, Iran. I think in his first 8 months or so in office President Obama has surpassed the gloomiest predictions about how he would handle the portion of the job for which he had the least preparation. But the next couple months will really test his mettle.
The challenge on the Iraqi front is multifaceted, but the aspect that may be most critical will be how he deals with Iraqi over-confidence. The recent bombings underscore that it is woefully premature to declare "mission accomplished" in the counter-insurgency. The 2007 surge strategy reversed the trajectory in Iraq, but there is still a long way to go. Perhaps the phased withdrawal laid out under the Status of Forces agreement will be gradual enough to meet President Obama’s cleverly-formulated goal of "leaving Iraq more responsibly than we went into Iraq." But ever since we transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in 2005, a persistent pattern has emerged: Iraqis have been over-confident in their ability to govern and provide security and have been underwhelming in their delivery of the same. They have done well where U.S. forces have been well-aligned, well-resourced, and well-led. They have done much less well in other areas. Unfortunately, U.S. leverage over the Iraqis is diminishing on an almost daily basis and the faster we pull out the faster our leverage erodes.
This is a challenge to Obama because the facts on the ground in Iraq may require that he resist the political instincts he has honed in a domestic context, all of which will be pushing him to get out of Iraq as fast as the logistics train will let him.
The domestic context is also a critical factor in the Afghanistan challenge. As a recent Washington Post poll makes clear, public support for the Afghan mission is starting to wobble. There is even a slim majority giving the negative answer on the "is it worth it" question. I have never liked that question because it involves almost hopelessly complex and incommensurate judgments. From a policy point of view, what matters the most is the public’s stomach for continuing the fight and I do not believe that the "worth it" question taps into that well. The poll is somewhat more encouraging on the dimension that the Gelpi-Feaver-Reifler model identifies as key: optimism about eventual success. The public shows continued optimism on that score and I believe that translates into a reservoir of public support that President Obama can tap.
The challenge for Obama is that his military advisors and independent experts may believe that eventual success requires the commitment of additional troops and resources to Afghanistan. And on the question of more troops, the recent poll makes clear, Obama does not have a reservoir of support — indeed, the numbers are running nearly 2-to-1 for reducing rather than increasing troops. President Obama could shift those numbers, if he came to believe that an increase was necessary and if he committed the political capital and the bully pulpit to the job. But he would be dealing primarily with skeptics within his party. He enjoys robust support from across the aisle. His problem is with the majority opinion of his own party. At a time when he is facing a within-party backlash over health care, can he also do what it takes to bring his partisan troops in line? As Will Inboden points out, the great presidents with which he likes to compare himself managed this tricky maneuver; the not-so-great ones he does not want to emulate did not.
The third great Commander-in-Chief challenge is still on the horizon and not (yet) predominantly military in form: Iran. Over the next couple months, the deadlines President Obama himself set for his Iran policy will come due. By mid-September, we will see whether the Iranians respond meaningfully to the offer of direct negotiations. By the end of the year, President Obama has promised to reassess whether this gambit has yielded results. At best, the Israelis may be on a similar clock; at worst, their clock may be ticking even faster. That means that within a few short months, at a time when both Iraq and even more probably Afghanistan will be constituting grave military challenges, President Obama will have a fateful military decision to make concerning Iran. If the diplomatic track does not produce results, and if he chooses to eschew the military option, he still will face the daunting challenge of persuading the Israelis to eschew the military option.
The last several weeks have marked a consequential chapter in how historians will evaluate President Obama’s domestic legacy. The next several months could be an equally consequential chapter for how historians will evaluate him as Commander in Chief. For all of our sakes, I hope he performs well.
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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