Shadow Government

Can Obama speed up the battlefield clock or slow down the domestic politics clock?

General McChrystal’s recent report that the Kandahar operation is on a slower track than expected puts the Obama administration’s familiar "two clocks" strategic dilemma in sharp relief. Any war has two clocks, one driven by domestic politics and the other driven by battlefield outcomes. The challenge for the commander-in-chief is to manage both clocks so ...

General McChrystal’s recent report that the Kandahar operation is on a slower track than expected puts the Obama administration’s familiar "two clocks" strategic dilemma in sharp relief. Any war has two clocks, one driven by domestic politics and the other driven by battlefield outcomes. The challenge for the commander-in-chief is to manage both clocks so that success on the battlefield is achieved before time runs out on the domestic political clock. The dilemma is particularly acute in democracies, where the impatience of leaders far from the battlefront can put in jeopardy the ability of the government to continue fighting, regardless of the stakes. If you think this is a new, post-Vietnam problem associated with small wars in far-off-lands, just ask General Washington about "sunshine patriots" or President Lincoln about "Copperheads"

If the clocks get out of synch there are only two ways to re-synch them: Accelerate the battlefield clock or slow down the domestic politics clock.

General McChrystal’s report was a warning that he does not think he can accelerate the battlefield clock, at least not tactically/militarily on the battlefield.  Getting our NATO allies to deliver on promised resources to help accelerate the training of the Afghan security forces would help, as Jackson Diehl points out in a perceptive column today, but even if they materialized tomorrow their impact would not be felt for a year. I agree with Bill Kristol that there are doubtless more things that could be done on the civilian side of the Afghan surge, but they too would not have near-term effects. Getting Pakistan to pressure the Taliban on their side of the border more effectively would help even more, and perhaps it is time to consider some out-of-the-box options like developing a very explicit quid pro quo arrangement with Pakistan: drawing up a list of their strategic "asks" and putting a concrete price tag in terms of anti-Taliban/pro-Afghanistan actions on each of them. If Pakistan delivers more, we will deliver more.  It would be worth some strategic planning shop doing brainstorming on this point.

The inconvenient truth, however, is that notwithstanding Obama’s courageous but belated decision to authorize the surge last December, much of Team Obama’s efforts have unwittingly slowed the battlefield clock down.  In fact, if in January 2009 one had sat down and tried to formulate a plan for slowing down the clock in Afghanistan, one might have devised the following:

  • Foster the belief in the region that the United States is about to abandon the effort, thereby encouraging your side to hedge and their side to intensify their efforts. The best way to do this is to announce arbitrary withdrawal timelines that have nothing to do with conditions on the ground.  Also, shortly after reaffirming the campaign commitment to this "war of necessity," conduct a follow-on, much publicized "should we even be here" review calling into question the exact strategy you had just trumpeted.
  • Convince your key ally that you are doing everything you can to undermine him.  The best way to do this is to criticize him in public, to draw attention to his myriad deficiencies and to brag to reporters about administering "tough love" to him.  Also, promote his domestic political rival, convincing him that your thumb is on the electoral scale against him, incentivizing him to compensate with ballot-stuffing of his own.
  • Stir up civil-military friction by chastising your battlefield commanders and accusing them of playing media politics.  The best way to do that is to give a sympathetic reporter unlimited access to White House political advisors who can brag about the way the President dressed down the generals and also brag about trapping those generals into committing to "win or leave" short timelines.  Of course, it will help if senior Administration officials contradict each other publicly and in candid not-for-attribution comments as to the actual significance of the arbitrary timeline.

To be fair, the administration has taken pains in recent weeks to reverse course on many of these missteps but it is too late to undo the damage of lost time and opportunity. These missteps are double-edged because the single biggest factor driving the domestic clock is the perception of progress on the battlefield.  Accelerate progress on the battlefield, and you add time on the domestic clock (cf. Iraq surge, 2007-2008). Suffer setbacks on the battlefield, and your domestic clock speeds up (cf. Iraq war, 2006). Perception sometimes matters more than reality (cf. Tet Offensive, 1968), but in general the best way to manage a war at home is to achieve success abroad.

But there are some tactics that Obama can adopt to manage the domestic clock, even without an acceleration on the battlefield. The classic move is replacing key lieutenants.  One promising place to start would be to review the list of missteps and see if one advisor was a common factor in each of them. If so, giving him his walking papers would allow the President to reset the domestic clock a few ticks.

Most importantly: The key factor for the domestic clock under the control of the Administration is the resolve of the commander-in-chief himself. President Bush demonstrated in 2007 that a determined political leader can buck even very strong political pressure. To be sure, preserving enough political space to give the Iraq surge a chance to succeed was a very close-run thing, but President Bush managed it. And he faced far greater political pressure to get out than President Obama has faced thus far or is likely to face for the rest of his term.

President Obama has his hands full with the Gulf oil spill problem and the specter of a double-dip recession looming.  But neither is in direct competition with the war in Afghanistan and so far only the fringe elements — the anti-war left and the neo-isolationist right – are loudly linking them. The clamor will get louder, but it is not likely to reach vuvuzela levels before this December, when President Obama has pledged to revisit the decision.

The most serious domestic threat to the Afghan war is the possibility that the general perception of Obama fecklessness will draft a primary challenger to his left — a Ted Kennedy to his Jimmy Carter. The window for such a threat corresponds (not coincidentally, I suspect) with the arbitrary review and timeline the Obama administration has set for the Afghan strategy. In fact, a plausible rationale for the timeline is that it might defuse left-wing anti-war pressure on Obama just enough to dissuade a serious primary challenge. Heading into the general election, the political pressure on Obama might actually reverse, with Obama’s political advisors feeling the need to demonstrate that the President has not lost the war on his watch.

One wild card in the domestic political situation is the impact of the midterm elections.  The Democratic caucus may well emerge out of the midterms even more hostile to the Afghan war. President Obama could respond by following their lead or by turning his focus from domestic policy to foreign policy where he will have a comparatively freer hand to play.

These would all be daunting strategic challenges for any commander-in-chief, but America’s political leaders have confronted and overcome worse. I suspect that President Obama’s place in the pantheon of wartime leaders may well be determined by how he manages his own set.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.