Monday, December 12, 2011

Obama and the Generals: It's Complicated

The national jobs crisis and Republican primary circus have dominated the news cycle for the past couple of weeks, but with American troops poised to return from Iraq by Christmas President Obama's security policy is also receiving some important scrutiny.

It's no secret that the President's overall approval ratings are bleak, with his foreign policy performance and certain personality characteristics providing bright spots. But anyway, the people they poll for those numbers base their opinions on gut feelings and 24-hour cable news blather. What are experts saying about Obama and his management of Big Issues like Iraq and Afghanistan?

They're saying that it's awkward. In a strange turn of events, Obama has been heeding his military commanders' advice about diplomatic relations with Pakistan in the wake of the recent Pakistan-Afghanistan border strike, while choosing to disregard many of their recommendations about the upcoming withdrawal from Iraq. As commander-in-chief the President clearly has a fine line to walk in terms of balancing expert advice on strategy with domestic political considerations. Few people believe that accepting generals' input at face value is itself a helpful strategy, as Jon Huntsman pointed out in a recent debate using Vietnam as a (less-than-perfect) comparison.

The problem isn't that Obama selectively declines to follow recommendations put forth by his generals, as he has on the issues of when and how many troops to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the worry is over how frequently Obama has ignored the input from those he selected to lead, or continue leading, the country's military in these two major engagements. By repeatedly overruling the generals' decisions, President Obama not only undermines their authority but also his own. Whether or not this is the case, it suggests that either his judgment of character failed to place the correct people in charge, or the people he chose in good faith fail repeatedly to convince him of their authority. Both options present a bleak insight into how top-level security decisions might be made. It's disconcerting to think that David Petraeus, Lloyd Austin, and Stanley McChrystal could be incompetent enough to repeatedly misunderstand the President's objectives or fail to develop adequate courses of action in this, their area of expertise.

Between Obama's complicated relationship with his military leaders, deteriorating relations with Pakistan and Iran, uncertainty in Russia, drug violence on the Mexican border, and a supposed new focus on East Asia (among a host of other security issues), the President's fourth year in office looks to have a major focus security policy. While this means that the President is likely to be 100% grey-haired by 2013, at least it will provide ample fodder for presidential debates.

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