On second thought, maybe it wasn’t a Johnson-McNamara moment in Afghanistan

On second thought, maybe it wasn’t a Johnson-McNamara moment in Afghanistan

Did the Obama administration replicate the Vietnam-era mistake of Johnson and McNamara: making it seem like the military endorsed an option that they actually opposed? I raised that question in an earlier post and hoped that the answer was no. After discussing the matter extensively with people who have thought about civil-military relations even more than I have, I am now inclined to say that the answer is probably no. I reach this conclusion, however, by giving the administration what they chose not to give their senior commander: the benefit of the doubt.

If my new thinking on this matter is correct, this little drama is a classic inside-the-Beltway story, and I hope the reader will indulge a long post.

When any administration makes a major policy decision like this, senior officials provide background interviews to members of the press. This is a chance for the administration to frame the issue in the most advantageous light and for the media to ask the kind of nitty-gritty questions that they need to write richly detailed stories on the decision. In the background session, a senior administration official (SAO) was asked whether General Petraeus endorsed the plan:

Q: Hi, everyone. Thanks for doing the call. I’ve got a couple, but I’ll be quick. Did General [David] Petraeus specifically endorse this plan, or was it one of the options that General Petraeus gave to the President? And as a follow-up, did [Defense Secretary Bob] Gates, [CIA] Director [Leon] Panetta and [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton all endorse it? Finally, will the President say about how many troops will remain past 2014? And of the 33,000 coming home by next summer, how many are coming home and how many are going to be reassigned somewhere else?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, I’ll take part of that. In terms of General Petraeus, I think that, consistent with our approach to this, General Petraeus presented the President with a range of options for pursuing this drawdown. There were certainly options that went beyond what the President settled on in terms of the length of time that it would take to recover the surge and the pace that troops would come out — so there were options that would have kept troops in Afghanistan longer at a higher number.

That said, the President’s decision was fully within the range of options that were presented to him and has the full support of his national security team. I think there’s a broad understanding among the national security team that there’s an imperative to both consolidate the gains that have been made and continue our efforts to train Afghan security forces and partner with them in going after the Taliban, while also being very serious about the process of transition and the drawdown of our forces.

So, to your first question, I would certainly — I would characterize it that way. There were a range. Some of those options would not have removed troops as fast as the President chose to do, but the President’s decision was fully in the range of options the President considered.

Just for a process point, over the course of last week the President had three meetings with his national security team to include Secretary Gates, Secretary Clinton, Director Panetta, Director [of National Intelligence James] Clapper, but also General Petraeus was in all of those discussions as well — and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, of course, Admiral [Mike] Mullen.

That is not very elegant spin, but I am willing to believe that it is not an outright misrepresentation of the military role in the decision-making process, even though it is seems to be explicitly rebutted by Marine Lt. Gen. John Allen’s exchange with Senator Graham shortly thereafter:

GRAHAM: The option that the country has chosen through President Obama is to withdraw 10,000 this year, all surge forces gone by September. Is it fair to say, General Allen, that was not one of the options presented to the president by General Petraeus?

ALLEN: It is a more aggressive option than that which was presented.

GRAHAM: My question is, was that a {sic} option?

ALLEN: It was not.

GRAHAM: So I just want the country to understand that this is not the Petraeus strategy any longer. The commander in chief has the perfect right to do what he did. I just hope that it hasn’t undercut what I think could be a very successful outcome.

I now think it is likely that what happened is what MAXWELLAWC suggested on the comment board of my original post: that General Petraeus presented a range of options, some of which had the surge fully recovered earlier than September 2012 and others that had the surge fully recovered later, perhaps much later, than September 2012. No option had the exact September date the president chose, but that date was, as the SAO suggested, "fully in the range." And yet, as Allen claimed, that was technically not one of the options Petraeus presented to the president.

If I am right about this, then it would have been better for Allen to follow up his statement with "but it was in the range of the options presented." And it might have been even better if he used the opportunity to explain the proper way to interpret military options.

He could have explained that, in a well-functioning civil-military relationship, the option generation part of the decision-making process would go something like this:

  • The president would give broad guidance to the military requesting options (for instance, please give me a range of options for recovering the surge, some that would bring the surge out within a year from now and some that would leave the surge well into the next term — he might also add, and please feel free to include another option beyond these specified, if you deem it useful).
  • The military would develop the options (here is what it would look like and what it would cost in dollars).
  • The military would also assess the options (here are the chief risks we see with it, here is how the enemy and allies would likely respond, here is how we could mitigate those risks and responses).
  • Crucially, the military would also advise on the options, indicating which option, if any, they deemed best.

The president, of course, should solicit the views of people beyond the battlefield commander. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) should weigh in, especially if there are implications for the train and equip missions of the services. The chairman of the JCS should provide an independent military judgment. The intelligence community should second-guess allied and enemy responses. The State Department and the civilian side of the Department of Defense should give their views. Congress should be quietly consulted. Heck, even outsiders might be brought in as a quiet sounding board. And, of course, there could be many iterations if the president was not satisfied with the first round of options.

At the end of the day, the president makes the decision and everyone else sets out to implement it as effectively as possible.

What this means is that if the decision is a hard one and if the system is working properly, the menu will likely contain options that the military does not recommend (perhaps because they think it is too risky or too costly or what-have-you). The president still needs to have the military develop and assess that option, but just because the military develops and assesses it that does not mean that the military has endorsed it.

Which brings me to the SAO in the backgrounder. The transcript does not indicate who it was (actually, there were at least three of them), but whoever it was, he/she was at best imprecise. He/she was asked a direct question about whether the military endorsed the plan and whether the military had presented what the president chose as one of their options. The answer was a bit of a fog of indirection that gave the impression to some on the call (and others reading the transcript) that the SAO was trying to suggest a stronger degree of military support than the circumstances warranted.

If I am right about what happened, what he should have said was something like this: "No, that option was not the one endorsed by General Petraeus. Nor was it one of the options originally assessed by General Petraeus, because it ended up being a date that came down in between two of the assessed options. It was an option that emerged out of the deliberations. At the end of the day, the national security team, including the military, said they could support the president’s decision."

The SAO should not give the impression that if the military presents and assesses the option to the president that is tantamount to an endorsement. That way leads to civil-military purgatory, with the military presenting only one real option, their preferred one, and then marginal variants off of that: "Sir, we recommend that we recover the surge on July 1, 2013, but we have also assessed the option of recovering the surge on June 30, 2013, or extending the surge until July 2, 2013." If the president wants to see a full menu of widely divergent options, he and his advisors have to reassure the military that their advice will be fairly heard and, if not heeded, no one will try to spin it otherwise.

If I am right, there is no civil-military process foul this time, or, at worst, a very minor one that could easily be due to the difficulty of answering extemporaneous questions.

There may still be grounds for civil-military conflict, however. The president chose an option that his key military advisors thought was too risky. But they had their full opportunity to make that case to the president and, obviously, they did not persuade him on the merits of their case (or he has a different risk tolerance than they do).

Obama clearly judged the matter differently than did Petraeus, and if he had asked my opinion, I would have advised that he give Petraeus the benefit of the doubt. But it was Obama’s call to make and I am now inclined to believe that he did not violate civil-military norms in making the call as he did nor in explaining it to the American people as his White House did.

To reach this point, I have to be willing to grant the Obama team the benefit of the doubt. If one reads the White House backgrounder closely one finds other statements that strain credulity. For instance, I am pretty sure that the SAO cannot really believe what he said: that public opinion in the United States "doesn’t play a role" in the president’s decision on Afghanistan. Yet that sort of spin is pretty small ball stuff — in pick-up basketball terms, that is the sort of thing that will get folks jawing, but no one is going to stop play to call that a foul. I am willing to give them that benefit.

I hope the military is willing, too, and here is the crux of the matter. President Obama still has some remedial work to do on civil-military relations, even if we give him a pass on the specific question of misrepresenting military advice. He has asked the military to implement what they consider to be a risky plan. He would be wise to reassure them that he is in the game as completely as they are.

One effective way to do that is to show that he is willing to execute his war president duties as vigorously as he is asking them to execute their war-making duties. That goes well-beyond making a tough decision. It means doing the hard work of persuading the American people that this will lead to a successful end and building a coalition in Congress to support it. And it might even require showing some flexibility to adjust if it turns out his choice was not as good as he thought it would be.