Shadow Government

Is It Worth Giving Obama Advice He Won’t Listen To?

Good advice falling on deaf ears won't help the U.S. defeat the Islamic State.


When it comes to national security, should one advise President Barack Obama on the best course of action or just the best course of action that he is likely or able to accept and implement?

That is the question left hanging by this intriguing op-ed by former assistant secretary of defense Bing West analyzing the Syrian mess. West focuses in on one particular tactic — increasing the role for U.S. forward air controllers and targeteers, which many experts have called for as a way of improving the effectiveness of the air strikes (see this op-ed co-authored by Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy). West rightly points out that there are downsides and risks with this tactic (as with any tactic, including the tactic of eschewing the use of U.S. forward air controllers).

West notes that the incoming Marine Corps Commandant Lt. General Robert Neller refrained from endorsing calls for embedding U.S. air controllers, and West says he was right to do so. Right, not because the best professional military judgment would be that these air controllers are not needed. No, West says, Neller was right to be more cautious because Neller has as his commander-in-chief a president who has yet to demonstrate that he can develop and implement an effective political-military strategy. Without such a strategy, the tactic is likely not to be as effective as the advocates believe. West is echoing a point I made before: one goes to war with the commander-in-chief you have, not the one you might wish you had.

With a more competent commander-in-chief, West seems to be arguing, embedded air controllers might be a useful tactic. But this president would not manage the risks well, would not utilize the capability wisely, and the results would likely disappoint. Note: West is not arguing that he has a better plan with a higher chance of success. Rather, he seems to be arguing that as long as Obama is in power, no plan has a good chance of success.

Consider this sports analogy: President Obama as a quarterback with a weak arm and a poor record of judgment and accuracy. With such a field captain, does it make sense to draw up an offensive game plan built on long passes down the field? Even if it is late in the game and the team is deeply in the hole, if the quarterback cannot or will not throw the ball, the offensive coordinator should not call for long passes. With this quarterback, we have to come up with a strategy built on the run and the screen pass, regardless of the score or the game-clock.

I have some sympathy for this perspective. If I had 15 minutes to advise the president, I might very well tailor my advice down to incremental reforms Obama might be persuaded to implement, rather than spend the time on a more expansive critique that might be warranted but just fall on deaf ears.

But it is dangerous for military advisors to let the president’s debilities shape their best military judgment. That puts the military on the slippery slope of politicization that ends in sycophancy, with the president surrounded by yes-men.

For military advisors, a better rule of thumb is this: make sure you have included and analyzed a set of options that includes at least one tailored to the debilities of this president, but describe the pros and cons of that option honestly and also include in your advice other options that better accord with military judgment. Let the president make the choice, but you do not need to provide false military cover for that choice if that is not the one indicated by your best professional military judgment.

What about those of us on the outside? I recently spent the better part of a week with Democratic and Republican experts in the Aspen Strategy Group analyzing the U.S. war against the Islamic State. While there were some contrary voices, I was struck by the near-consensus that emerged — a consensus that easily crossed party lines: current U.S. efforts were not leading to success and it was past time that we escalated to a more robust approach that offered a better chance of success.

Despite hours of talk, however, no one had a good answer for what we came to see as the greatest argument against the emerging consensus: President Obama was not likely to agree with our analysis. We could draw up a better play, but we did not have a quarterback who would or could run the play.

In the world of football, coaches can swap quarterbacks fairly easily. In the world of national security, we are not likely to see a change of personnel until January 2017.

In such a world, is the best we can do limited to the best he will do?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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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