Shadow Government

Why getting inside the West Wing’s Afghan strategy review makes me uneasy

Anyone interested in civil-military relations should read this fascinating excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s authorized account of President Obama’s first year in office. Because Alter had such extensive access to senior White House sources and relates their views so uncritically, this may be as close as we can get to the "Inside the West Wing" perspective ...

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Anyone interested in civil-military relations should read this fascinating excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s authorized account of President Obama’s first year in office. Because Alter had such extensive access to senior White House sources and relates their views so uncritically, this may be as close as we can get to the "Inside the West Wing" perspective on President Obama’s Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 and, of special import, the ITWW perspective on civil-military relations. That perspective makes me a little uneasy.

Alter reports that Team Obama (not surprisingly) was very proud of its review and believed it to be quite literally the model for sound strategic planning. They were (again, not surprisingly) upset by the leaks, but (and here is where I start to get surprised) they felt that the leaks were entirely due to the clever machinations of a media savvy military that threatened to dance rings around the too-sincere and too-trusting White House. Read this delicious quote and realize that the "neophytes" Alter is describing include Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Jim Jones, and Bob Gates:

In fact, the military, practiced in the ways of Washington, now ran PR circles around the neophytes in the Obama White House, leaking something to the Pentagon reporters nearly every day. The motive for all the leaks seemed clear to the White House: to box the president into the policy that McChrystal had recommended, at least another 80,000 troops and an open-ended commitment lasting 10 years or more." 

Looking past the leaks charge and ignoring (as Alter does) the daily anti-military leaking from the White House, the ITWW perspective has a very odd way of describing the military’s goal. I am sure that if you asked General McChrystal, he would say that he thought he was identifying the plan with the best chance of achieving the stated objectives of Obama’s plan to win what Obama repeatedly (and very recently) called a necessary war — said stated objectives having been reaffirmed just a few months prior when Obama announced the results of what was then described as a thorough, systematic, top-to-bottom review of Afghanistan policy. According to Alter, Team Obama thought the military was merely trying to "box the president into the policy."

Indeed, Alter reports that the signal achievement of the review, again from the ITWW perspective, is that Obama successfully resisted the military effort to commit the president to his own war and that, on the contrary, Obama had boxed the military into an irrevocable and unconditional exit from Afghanistan. Again it is worth quoting Alter:

Obama was trying to turn the tables on the military, to box them in after they had spent most of the year boxing him in. If, after 18 months, the situation in Afghanistan had stabilized as he expected, then troops could begin to come home. If conditions didn’t stabilize enough to begin an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces (or if they deteriorated further), that would undermine the Pentagon’s belief in the effectiveness of more troops. The commanders couldn’t say they didn’t have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did."

Alter uncritically endorses this view and describes the new strategy as crystal clear on the terms and timing of the exit. However, as Alter surely must have known, the exact opposite is true: there has been considerable confusion and contradictory statements out of the administration on what the exit strategy entails.

In other words, if Alter is right about what the White House considers to be its most important achievement in the Afghan Strategy Review, then the Review was a failure. Moreover, if Alter has faithfully captured Team Obama’s approach to Afghanistan, then there is good reason to be concerned about the future. Those of us who supported the president’s ultimate decision on Afghanistan did so because we hoped it indicated a commitment from Obama to win the war of necessity he was in. Alter reports the team seemed to be more concerned with checkmating the U.S. military than with checkmating the Taliban.

Let me be clear. Obama was right to be angry about any leaks from the military, particularly any leaks designed to tie his hands. And he was certainly right to dress down (in private) any military caught engaging in those activities. But I wish there were indications that he was also angry about the anti-military leaks from his civilian staff that he dressed down the civilians who did it, including those who leaked to Alter about the dressing down of the military. For that matter, I wish there were indications that Team Obama understands that the real civil-military problems with their Afghan policy are not that the military is over-committed to success but that their civil-military team seems not to have yet achieved unity of effort, let alone unity of command. 

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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