At a moment when the United States is involved in three wars and the world is afire with security challenges, it may well be that the trickiest conflict for Obama in 2011 is the one that is emerging between his own defense establishment and key members of his civilian national security team.
The relations between the military and Obama have been professional but never warm. The firing of Stanley McChrystal illustrated this when the outspoken general's views were made public and were so harsh that they were deemed insubordinate. There has always been a degree of unease between General David Petraeus and some on Obama's team who view him as a potential political wildcard, someone Obama may need more as a validator of his policies than Petraeus "needs" Obama. While Secretary of Defense Gates has been, by any measure, one of Obama's two or three most effective and prominent aides, in recent months as his tenure draws to a close he has expressed views -- on issues from the lunacy of undertaking future ground wars in the Middle East to the difficulties of imposing a no-fly zone --that have created complications for the White House message machine. Certainly, the decision to intervene in Libya was one that many senior defense officials were more reluctant to undertake than were their civilian counterparts.
Looming on the horizon, as reported in today's Washington Post, is the coming debate over just how many troops the United States will pull out of Afghanistan starting this summer. The president has promised to begin withdrawing and has let it be known he wants to take meaningful rather than purely symbolic steps to draw down forces in that country. As reported in the Post story and as is known to all who interact with the senior military leadership involved, there is considerable reluctance on the part of the responsible military brass to rush the withdrawals.
Since the mistreatment of the American military that came out of the frustrations of Vietnam, beginning in earnest with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, there has been a strong impulse in American politics to treat our military with great deference publicly. This has grown over time to the point that it is a quasi-theological issue at this point and that showing the slightest disrespect for leaders in the armed services is cause for immediate fierce criticism, particularly but far from exclusively from the right. Anything like criticism of regular troops is even more politically fatal.
This trend grew even more pronounced in the years after 9/11 -- all this despite the fact that there is a great tradition in American history of open criticism of military and defense leaders from their civilian bosses and colleagues. It is worth remembering that it was one of America's most prominent military leaders who, as president, warned of the threat of the rise of the military industrial establishment and that war presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt to Truman were involved in open scraps with their generals. In other words, the willingness to challenge the views of the military is actually a hallmark of many great American leaders and frankly, civilian control of the military is one of America's most hallowed traditions for good reason.
Thus, it is to be hoped that Obama and his national security team show sufficient intestinal fortitude when it comes to the decisions concerning the Afghanistan draw-down. More than a decade into that conflict, spending at the rate of $120 billion a year, it is actually important to ask not only how fast we should leave but why it is that our military strategies have produced such frustrating results. Clearly, clearing out terrorist threats in the region and developing a local capability to maintain the peace after America has left would have been difficult under any circumstances in Afghanistan but it was all made nearly impossible by the fact that the real threat was in Pakistan, a country into which we could not venture in real force. That said, knowing the conditions well after several years of combat, the military still advanced ideas for massive troop increases that have produced frustratingly halting progress and that many felt then would be as futile as they have been.
In other words, the military has given bad advice in Afghanistan and, by saying let's get out very slowly, is giving it again. That the conflict has been stained by ugly breakdowns in military discipline and morality as illustrated by the current "kill team" scandal and that there have been too frequent instances of collateral civilian casualties that while perhaps inevitable in war have also undermined our political objectives, suggests other areas in which greater willingness to scrutinize our commanders is in order. That no senior officers have yet been called to account for the "kill team" offenses is a symptom of a system that still protects its own too assiduously.
Some of America's very best leaders are in our military and very often, the capabilities of those leaders and their typical professionalism set them a cut above most of their civilian counterparts. That their service should be honored and their sacrifices respected is inarguable. That some in the civilian national security establishment at the moment have precious little military experience or understanding is also indisputable. Frankly, in my view, that is the reason that those civilian officials were ultimately cowed into accepting plans in Afghanistan that were deeply flawed and destined to fail.
But now, with scandal in the air, results coming slowly, and the American people increasingly restive and desirous of focusing our resources on problems much closer to home, it is time to acknowledge that even America's best can become too caught up in their own groupthink. Significant withdrawals should not only begin this year, but the pace of those withdrawals should remain brisk throughout 2012 until we are essentially out of that conflict.
Personally, I feel leaving behind a small force in the region to help monitor and respond to isolated threats and to keep an eye on Pakistan and its growing nuclear arsenal (paid for, it seems likely, in large part with aid dollars pumped in from the United States) makes sense -- though in all likelihood the bulk of that particular mission will be best handled by the Navy from offshore, by the Air Force from space and via other over the horizon tools and by the intelligence community. But waging a war that cannot be won on behalf of an ally who is flirting with our enemies, undermining our goals, and hurting his own people is neither something America can or should be engaged in no matter how accomplished, distinguished, or worthy the advocates for a prolonged involvement may be.