- By Peter FeaverPeter 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.
Is President Barack Obama casualty-phobic? That is the question raised by an intriguing think-piece by Greg Jaffe in the Feb. 1 edition of the Washington Post. Though Jaffe does not use that term, I suspect that he was wondering the same thing when he sat down to explore President Obama’s curious ambivalence and hesitancy regarding the military missions Obama has ordered the U.S. military to execute — and the equally odd messaging coming from the administration on these military operations.
First, let’s define some terms. As I and my co-authors have explained elsewhere, most Americans — and certainly every president — are casualty sensitive, meaning that they view the human toll of war as a negative cost that must be weighed against any possible positive benefit from military action. If told we can achieve the same military objective but at a lower level of casualties (and with no other compensating costs), then every president would pick that course over one that promised no additional benefits but significantly higher casualties. By a similar logic, if told the human costs of an operation are going to be high, then every president will demand that the expected benefits of that operation be high as well. Degrees of casualty sensitivity can vary by the person and by the geopolitical era, and the technology of war clearly plays a role: because of advances in technology and our military prowess, it is reasonable to expect that the U.S. military can achieve certain battlefield objectives at much lower levels of combat deaths than was possible in other eras. Conversely, battle tolls associated with successful missions in an earlier era would be deemed unacceptable and signs of military failure today; as many Americans died in the successful D-Day landing in Normandy as have died in the entire Afghanistan war. So modern presidents rightly expect lower combat deaths from military operations today than earlier presidents did.
It is not really interesting to note that President Obama is casualty sensitive in this sense of the word.
But some Americans, and perhaps some presidents, are so casualty sensitive that they belong in a qualitatively different category: casualty phobic, meaning that they would only support military missions, regardless of the importance, if the likely casualties would be so low as to be tantamount to zero. President Clinton exhibited signs of casualty phobia, committing American prestige and military forces into the Kosovo War, but with restrictions explicitly designed to reduce expected U.S. combat deaths to zero — restrictions so draconian that they put in jeopardy the entire mission.
President Obama has not taken quite those extreme measures yet, but he has repeatedly indicated that he ranks mission accomplishment lower than other desiderata when it comes to using military force. Thus, he negotiated only half-heartedly to leave a stay-behind force in Iraq in 2011 and then ordered all troops to leave rather than accept the Iraqi compromise regarding immunity protections for the troops. At the time, the eventual decision seemed to indicate that it was better to abandon Iraq to its fate than to risk additional U.S. troops, even in a curtailed stay-behind mission. Now, of course, he has ordered U.S. troops back into Iraq, but without the immunity protections he insisted on in 2011 — in fact, with a slightly weaker version of the compromise form of protection he deemed inadequate before. How much of this is an extreme desire to protect troops vs. an extreme desire to meet partisan campaign objectives is debatable. There is evidence that it is not merely about protecting the troops: Obama’s last offer of stay-behind troops to the Iraqi government involved such a small force that many military experts considered it unable to function safely in Iraq.
A similar mixed dynamic was in play when President Obama ordered the surge of troops in Afghanistan in December 2009. Ordering a surge is hardly a sign of casualty phobia, but Obama hobbled the surge by simultaneously announcing the date when the surge would end, a date pegged not to mission success but to the presidential campaign calendar. This move is now widely recognized as a strategic blunder, one that likely contributed significantly to the less-than-satisfactory results of the surge itself (especially when compared with the much more effective Iraq surge).
And, to be sure, ordering ground troops back into the fight in Iraq in 2014 is not necessarily an indicator of casualty phobia, but playing games with labels (are they wearing “combat boots”?) and imposing mission-confounding restrictions on their deployment does start to look dysfunctional.
Which brings us to the Jaffe piece. Jaffe points to head-scratching quotes from Obama’s closest political advisors that appear to reduce the military mission to “not getting killed” rather than to accomplishing some meaningful political objective. Jaffe quotes Obama’s principal communications advisor, Ben Rhodes: “We believe it is a national security objective not to be losing service members in wars.” If Rhodes was trying to say that the administration does not want the military to take needless risks, then he picked an especially unfortunate way of conveying that idea. For the message Rhodes sent, intentionally or not — and the message I believe the military received — was: “the Obama administration elevates force protection above mission accomplishment.” And that is the early indicator of casualty phobia.
Statements like this exacerbate what has been Obama’s most vexing debility in the area of fulfilling his responsibilities as commander-in-chief: never has a U.S. president presided over such an extensive use of the military while doing so little to mobilize public and political support for those military missions. Even very ardent supporters of the president have commented in private about how reluctant Obama is to make the public case on behalf of the wars and military missions, especially during the crucial phases of the fight when the success or failure of the mission still hangs in the balance. Publicly, Obama defenders insist that Obama’s actions (ordering the troops into battle) should speak louder than his words (mobilizing public/political support for the battle), but privately they do not seem altogether convinced by their own spin.
The issue is not one of cowardice vs. bravery. It is much more fundamental than that. If the president commits U.S. forces into a fight, he should believe the mission is important enough to commit to prevail in that fight, and he should be willing to do what it takes to succeed. Doing what it takes involves not hobbling the military, including not saddling the military with restrictions that elevate force protection over mission accomplishment. Doing what it takes means steeling oneself to accept the inevitable costs of war. And doing what it takes involves spending one’s own political capital on behalf of the soldiers who are risking their lives on behalf of the president’s policies.
President Obama has really struggled with this part of the job, and the Washington Post piece draws our attention to one very important aspect of this: the president’s own internal struggle over the moral responsibility for ordering others to risk their lives. This is a very understandable struggle, and those of us who have not been in Obama’s position must acknowledge we cannot be sure how we ourselves would handle it. But we are learning more and more about how President Obama has been handling it, and the possible negative consequences for the success of the missions are increasingly evident as well.
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