Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Bush and Obama: panic vs. dither

This is one of those posts that no one is gonna like. But life isn’t a popularity contest. George W. Bush came into office with many of his national security officials thinking that their adversary would be China. The overarching foreign policy task of his administration, some of them thought, would be to manage the ...

580307_090929_bush2.jpg
580307_090929_bush2.jpg
SARASOTA, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush has his early morning school reading of 'My Pet Goat' interrupted by his Chief of Staff Andrew Card (L) shortly after news of the New York City airplane crashes was available in Sarasota, Florida. After hearing the news Mr. Bush continued the reading. AFP Photo Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

This is one of those posts that no one is gonna like. But life isn't a popularity contest.

George W. Bush came into office with many of his national security officials thinking that their adversary would be China. The overarching foreign policy task of his administration, some of them thought, would be to manage the rise of China and the decline of Russia. This was reinforced by the EP-3 knockdown incident with China just six weeks into his first term. But nine months into that term, Bush found out different, as Islamic extremism got his notice with acts in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. He reacted, characteristically, with panic. Sometimes that manifested itself as a deer-in-the-headlights look, and at other times as pelvis-thrusting bluster.

I think Obama may be having his own 9/11 moment, finding out that things aren't gonna go like he planned during the campaign. He came into office, I think, believing that his tasks were to engage or contain Iran, manage the withdrawal from Iraq and change the war in Afghanistan. On Iran, I think, he has done pretty well-trends are certainly pointing toward a multilateral containment effort.

This is one of those posts that no one is gonna like. But life isn’t a popularity contest.

George W. Bush came into office with many of his national security officials thinking that their adversary would be China. The overarching foreign policy task of his administration, some of them thought, would be to manage the rise of China and the decline of Russia. This was reinforced by the EP-3 knockdown incident with China just six weeks into his first term. But nine months into that term, Bush found out different, as Islamic extremism got his notice with acts in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. He reacted, characteristically, with panic. Sometimes that manifested itself as a deer-in-the-headlights look, and at other times as pelvis-thrusting bluster.

I think Obama may be having his own 9/11 moment, finding out that things aren’t gonna go like he planned during the campaign. He came into office, I think, believing that his tasks were to engage or contain Iran, manage the withdrawal from Iraq and change the war in Afghanistan. On Iran, I think, he has done pretty well-trends are certainly pointing toward a multilateral containment effort.

But Obama has done nothing much on Iraq except screw up a couple of appointments there and break a campaign promise to withdraw a brigade a month this year. And on Afghanistan, when told recently what it would take to implement the strategy he announced in March, he appeared to balk. So he reacted, characteristically, I think, by dithering. Some readers of this blog think this looks like leadership, but I disagree-it isn’t leading of you do a multi-month review of Afghan strategy, decide what it is going to be, ask the general in charge how to implement it, and then respond by deciding to review strategy again for a few weeks. Sometimes Obama’s stance manifests itself as professorial pomposity; at other times as repeated policy reviews.

The danger of his moderating instirncts was put well by Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the Sunday edition of the Washington Post :

All the options Obama faces in Afghanistan are unpalatable. With Iraq, when presented with a set of troop-withdrawal timelines this year, the president took the middle way. He has shown similar instincts on health-care reform and the detention of terrorism suspects. With Afghanistan, however, that may be the most perilous path.

The idea of sending thousands more troops will be a tough sell to Congress. Pulling back to a far more narrow mission could open Obama to charges of flip-flopping — he told veterans as recently as last month that the conflict in Afghanistan is a “war of necessity” that is fundamental to American security. Splitting the difference could have the advantage of winning over moderates in both parties, as well as voters who have begun to question the extent of the U.S. commitment there.

But Obama may want to resist that lure. Although the middle ground is often safe political terrain, it can be the riskiest spot on the battlefield.

Bottom line: For the first time, I am getting worried by Obama’s handling of a foreign policy issue. But I’ll take dither over panic any day.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.