President George W. Bush painted a clear view of the world with his “axis of evil” speech and backed it up with military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. While many around the world resented his muscle flexing, few doubted that Bush was prepared deploy military force. How things have changed on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For better or for worse, one of President Bush’s most conspicuous characteristics was his decisiveness in foreign affairs. But wars are never popular and the promise of more peaceful approaches always carries public appeal. Perhaps it was inevitable in the cycle of superpower politics that such resolution would be followed by vacillation.
One month ago these columns described General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan as a “seminal” moment in Barack Obama’s presidency. The decision placed President Obama in a position where he could not satisfy all his political supporters. How would he react?
Today, the focus is more on when he will make a decision. The White House has initiated an overarching review of the Afghan conflict that will take around one month to complete, meaning that a decision could be made by the end of October. On the other hand, it could drag on.
By contrast, the President acted swiftly to sign a $787 billion spending bill in the name of stimulating the economy. Added to which, he initially set an extremely tight deadline for health care reform, asserting that the country was at a “breaking point”. But neither of these pieces of legislation were as urgent as the choice now facing the Administration on Afghanistan.
Now the question begs whether the strategic review is merely a political tactic to give cover to an underlying unwillingness to make a decision. After all, the President ordered additional troops to Afghanistan as soon as he took office. Do we now conclude that this deployment took place on the hoof, or was such a review deemed unnecessary nine months ago?
Whatever the answers, and whatever the ultimate decision, Obama’s delay runs the clear risk of leading all parties in Afghanistan to believe that America is losing its will to lead the fight. This can only encourage the Taliban and its allies to maintain their incursion. Equally, it discourages the U.S.’s partners and undermines troop morale.
Britain’s Army Chief just stated that more troops would mean fewer casualties. If America’s political leaders aren’t sure whether its military should even stay in Afghanistan, why should soldiers from various NATO countries be risking life and limb?
Hesitancy from the White House also feeds concerns that the war effort will in future be conducted through a political rather than a military prism. Instead of a military strategy put together by the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, we could get one concocted by politicians and their advisers in Washington, DC. When it comes to military insight Barack Obama is no John McCain.
Given the impact such micromanagement had in Vietnam, and the propensity for political generals to make decisions based on sentiment or popularity with the voting public rather than hard battlefield facts, it is understandable that General McCrystal has openly lobbied for his plan overseas. After all, Congressional leaders, at the behest of the White House, are preventing him from testifying about his plan in Washington, DC.
President Obama is right to worry that a decision to send more troops to Afghanistan could derail his health care dream. But shouldn’t military judgment be something other than a political calculation? Doesn’t this decision deserve to be made based on the facts of the conflict?
President Obama’s inability to make an expeditious decision does not bode well for future U.S. foreign policy. And, while the President might welcome any evidence of a contrast with his predecessor, vacillation also carries a cost. Not only will it lead to needless military casualties but the rest of the world will draw lessons from it that are unlikely to serve U.S. interests.