Shadow Government

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

What would Obama do? (A thought experiment on Afghanistan)

By Christian Brose Let’s say you’re President Obama. You campaigned for an increased U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, but you hadn’t really kicked the tires on that problem. And when you did, upon taking office, you felt a serious twinge of buyer’s remorse. Meanwhile, your commanders were clamoring for more forces, and before having a chance ...

By Christian Brose

Let's say you're President Obama. You campaigned for an increased U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, but you hadn't really kicked the tires on that problem. And when you did, upon taking office, you felt a serious twinge of buyer's remorse. Meanwhile, your commanders were clamoring for more forces, and before having a chance to conduct a proper policy review, you agreed to deploy 17,000 more troops. And then they came back and asked for more, so you agreed again to deploy 4,000 trainers and enablers. This did not make your left-wing base happy at all.

Once you finally got around to conducting that policy review, your commanders were more or less unanimous in their call for a fully-resourced counterinsurgency strategy. Many others agreed. And ultimately, you did too. So you rolled out new goals and a new strategy that played to your domestic audience as a significant escalation of the war, which it was. This made your base even angrier. But you pressed on. You changed your entire military leadership in Kabul, bringing in a team that most everyone agreed was the ideal choice to execute the counterinsurgency campaign you were now calling for.

By Christian Brose

Let’s say you’re President Obama. You campaigned for an increased U.S. commitment to Afghanistan, but you hadn’t really kicked the tires on that problem. And when you did, upon taking office, you felt a serious twinge of buyer’s remorse. Meanwhile, your commanders were clamoring for more forces, and before having a chance to conduct a proper policy review, you agreed to deploy 17,000 more troops. And then they came back and asked for more, so you agreed again to deploy 4,000 trainers and enablers. This did not make your left-wing base happy at all.

Once you finally got around to conducting that policy review, your commanders were more or less unanimous in their call for a fully-resourced counterinsurgency strategy. Many others agreed. And ultimately, you did too. So you rolled out new goals and a new strategy that played to your domestic audience as a significant escalation of the war, which it was. This made your base even angrier. But you pressed on. You changed your entire military leadership in Kabul, bringing in a team that most everyone agreed was the ideal choice to execute the counterinsurgency campaign you were now calling for.

Then came summer. Your left-wing base grew more and more frustrated with you for what seemed to them like your unwillingness to fight for greater government intervention in the health care system (especially a public option), your perceived capitulation to the likes of Glenn Beck, and not least, the growing concern that you were getting America deeper into an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. After all, your base asked, weren’t you the antiwar candidate? They didn’t carry you to victory to get us out of one war only to immerse us in another. Public support for the fight in Afghanistan began to crater, especially among liberal Democrats. And this was before the whole corrupt business of the Afghan election, which only hardened the views of your base that you were becoming Lyndon Johnson.

So now, the general you chose has produced the assessment you asked for and devised a strategy to achieve the policy goals you set for him, and the kicker: He is likely to ask for even more troops and resources, possibly a whole lot more — to say nothing of a real commitment from you to take this issue before the American people, to make the case for it and spend your precious and fleeting political capital on it, to buy the time needed at home for your forces in the field to begin showing real signs of progress. After going through all of this, are you really going to reverse course now, pull the plug on this thing, and open yourself up to charges that you are ignoring the advice of your commanders and endangering America?

Let’s assume you’re not. And because this is a thought experiment, let’s say that you realize that the right course of action is to get General McChrystal what he says he needs to be successful. How would you go about rolling that out to a skeptical, war-weary public and a left-wing base that is already disenchanted with you — a base that will go full postal if you send 10, or 20, or even 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan?

Would you take a good deal of time responding to McChrystal’s assessment and even order your commander to hold off on sending his request for more troops and resources so you can seriously mull over the assessment, or at least give the appearance of mulling, as opposed to blithely signing off on whatever the military asks for? Yes.

Would you go on as many Sunday shows as possible to remind the American people that you want to make absolutely sure that we have the right strategy in Afghanistan, that we are there to defeat the people who carried out the attacks of September 11, that you have no interest in being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan, and that you won’t send any additional troops into harms way until you are confident that the loss of their lives would not be in vein? Yes.

Would you let it be known, both by saying so yourself and by leaks from others, that you and your national security team are going back to the drawing board and doing a hard scrub of your war policy, making sure that it’s absolutely right, sending hard questions back to your commanders, making rigorous demands of the local allies on whose behalf we’ll be fighting, and signaling that you have left no stone unturned? Yes.

In short, would you do everything possible to demonstrate to your base that you are not repeating the same mistakes you alleged of the last guy –rushing to war and committing thousands of lives and billions of dollars without an airtight and fully scrubbed plan to succeed? Again, yes.

And then, having demonstrated that you’ve weighed every option, explored every alternative, listened to every side, done all of this a second time, and nonetheless come to the conclusion that your commanders are right — that your strategy needs more troops and resources to succeed — having done all this, will it be any likelier that the country, let alone your antiwar base, will support your decision? Maybe.

It’s worth entertaining the possibility that Obama is doing what’s necessary to align his domestic politics before going through with an unpopular escalation. But, then, it’s far from clear that the present signs of shifting goalposts and reluctant, delayed decision-making should not be taken at face value, as the preparations to scrap the new strategy that Obama correctly laid out in March before it even has a chance to work.

Christian Brose is a senior editor at Foreign Policy. He served as chief speechwriter and policy advisor for U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from 2005 to 2008, and as speechwriter for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2004 to 2005.

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.