War by Other Means

President Obama is taking some heat for incorporating U.S. domestic politics into his Afghan war strategy. He would be negligent not to.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, quotes the president expressing concern about the domestic political implications of military strategy in Afghanistan: "I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party," he tells Sen. Lindsey Graham in defending his decision to announce July 2011 as the date for the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals. Some have denounced this as evidence that the president is endangering the nation by putting politics ahead of military necessity. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, for example, described the president’s quote as "some of the most cold-blooded, cynical, grotesquely political manipulation of national security that I think we’ve ever seen."

Like most of Washington, I haven’t read the book yet. So I don’t know the full context of the quote. But I do know that it’s no sin for a president to consider the domestic politics of military strategy. On the contrary, he has to. It’s a central part of his job as commander in chief.

Waging war requires resources — money, troops, and equipment — and in a democracy, resources require public support. In the United States, the people’s representatives in Congress control public spending. If a majority of lawmakers vote against the war, it will be defunded, and this means failure every bit as much as if U.S. soldiers were outfought on the battlefield. A necessary part of any sound strategy is thus its ability to sustain the political majority needed to keep it funded, and it’s the president’s job to ensure that any strategy the country adopts can meet this requirement. Of course, war should not be used to advance partisan aims at the expense of the national interest; the role of politics in strategy is not unlimited. But a military strategy that cannot succeed at home will fail abroad, and this means that politics and strategy have to be connected by the commander in chief.

This does not simply mean cheerleading for whatever plan looks best on narrow military grounds. Yes, presidents must work to promote public support for their policy. But strategy is the art of the possible. If a military plan cannot be made palatable to a working majority of lawmakers, it will lose and has to be changed to one that can — and it’s the president’s job to do so. This requires that any sound strategy must be shaped with domestic politics in mind — anything else would be malpractice.

This shouldn’t be news. Good strategy has always been influenced by domestic politics. In World War II, for example, U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall concluded that the right military strategy was to focus on Germany first, merely holding the line against Japan until the bigger threat was defeated in Europe; only after Germany was out of the way should the country swing forces east and deal with the Japanese. President Franklin D. Roosevelt opted instead for parallel offensives against both Germany and Japan at the same time — in fact, under Roosevelt’s policy the United States actually acted against Japan before it began its first attacks on German troops. Why? Among the more important reasons is that Roosevelt was worried that he would lose domestic political support for the war if he ignored the country that attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, fighting Germans instead. Most people today think the U.S. strategy in World War II was pretty successful. But if so, it was certainly not because it somehow isolated military planning from domestic politics. On the contrary, U.S. grand strategy in World War II was powerfully shaped by the president’s need to sustain popular support at home.

In Obama’s case, some concession to anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party was necessary to prevent the base from splintering and undermining the president’s majority for the war. His earlier decision to reinforce troop levels in Afghanistan in response to Gen. David McKiernan’s request was already unpopular with many Democrats; had he simply rubber-stamped yet another military request for escalation just a few months later, progressives in his own party would have been furious. Some sort of compromise was needed. The president opted for a time limit, albeit one with plenty of ambiguity in its details.

One can disagree with this choice. Personally, I would have preferred a deeper cut in the second troop request, by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, in exchange for more time. But it is one thing to debate how to marry military strategy and domestic politics — it is another to debate whether to do it. The need for the latter is clear: Good strategy is politically sustainable strategy. Anything else is unrealistic and self-defeating. And any president who did not worry about the domestic politics of his strategy would be a very poor commander in chief indeed.

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