The Only Thing That Matters in War is Looking Tough
Peter Feaver writing in the Shadow Gov’t blog does an e-squat and drops a steaming pile of foreign policy cow manure. But it’s worth reading insofar as it gives us a sense of Republican talking points in preparation for President Obama’s upcoming (Tuesday) Afghanistan policy announcement.
The entire piece is framed around whether or not Obama is really taking on his role of Commander in Chief, which needless to say (alright, I’ll say it anyway) is pretty stupid stuff. It only goes downhill from there.
Here are Feaver’s bullet points (bullet points!), which list signs that Obama really is becoming an honest-to-God Commander in Chief (As opposed to whatever he’s been so far in office? WTF?):
- His follow-through on messaging is sustained and vigorous (and matched by a similar on-message effort by the senior White House staff and cabinet-level officials).
- He reaches out to Republicans, thanking them for their commitment to the war effort and promising to work with them. (If he really wants to show self-confidence, he might even say some kind words about President Bush and his courage as a war-time leader, but it is perhaps unreasonable to expect such a transcendently classy gesture at this stage.)
- He and his team describe the Afghan effort as a war to be won.
- He and his team sketch a vision of “success” in terms of achievable objectives. Any discussion of an “exit strategy” is similarly framed in terms of mission success.
- He and his team describe the American (and allied) troops who are fighting as heroes who are fighting to defend our freedoms against malevolent enemies that really do seek to do us harm.
- He thanks our troops as well as our allies, including our Afghan allies, for the sacrifices they are making and he promises them that on his watch he will do everything necessary to see that those sacrifices will be redeemed by seeing the war through to a successful conclusion.
- He levels with the American people about the costly road ahead, but explains why alternatives would be even costlier
Notice how many of these are built around emotion and rhetoric.
Obama should thank the troops for their sacrifices–and he’s done this on many occasions. Unfortunately, I think Feaver’s misplaced his right-wing talking points. I thought the line was to criticize Obama for being photoed while saluting dead soldiers. Obama should also thank Republicans? What? Why? He should describe our soldiers as “heroes”—um, when does he not do this?
Another neocon classic–defining the fight as a “war to be won.” Right, because that’s undoubtedly the only thing standing between us and victory. Not, I don’t know, 30 years of war in Afghanistan, its status as just about the poorest and most violent country on the planet, its black markets in weapons and drugs, a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan, its corrupt government, drug lords, war lords, and one of the most treacherous terrains imaginable for fighting an insurgency.
Forget all that, we just need some straightforward “messaging.”
In short, there are basically two intelligent points in there.
#4 Sketch a vision in terms of achievable objectives and #8 Be honest about the cost and make a case why the cost is worth it. These are just fairly rational, obvious points in my book. If you are sending troops into a battle zone, you need to say you have a plan and why the risk is worth it. Basically, everything else can be deleted or is so obviously going to happen (Is Obama really going to avoid calling our troops heroes?!) as to be unnecessary.
Feaver then follows up with a list of indicators that Obama is not really serious about being Commander in Chief. Don’t bother asking how Feaver can get inside Obama’s head and divine his inner feelings. As you can imagine, these points are basically the opposite of list 1: e.g. he calls the soldiers victims instead of heroes.
And of course, since we are in the realm of “Who’s the Real Commander in Chief?”, the inevitable Bush comparison closes things out:
President Bush was not a perfect communicator in chief when it came to explaining the war on terror. But one thing that I suspect every American, even or perhaps especially those who opposed him, understood: Bush believed that the wars he was leading were worth winning and he was willing to sacrifice the things that were his to sacrifice (things like political and public popularity) so that America could prevail in them. In other words: He embraced his unexpected role as commander in chief and ranked that above his other assignments.
He was willing to sacrifice? Bush had no plan for rebuilding Afghanistan, didn’t get bin Laden because it was easier to use the Northern Alliance, and then led a policy of basically ignoring the entire country for 7 years.
He put wars outside the normal budgetary process and cut taxes during wartime.
He had no plan for Iraq post-Saddam and for years let the country descend into anarchic, near apocalyptic violence. He spent those same years abdicating his actual role as (strategic) Commander in Chief by basically saying in effect, “Well, the Generals said so and who am I to get in their way?” and then only switched course (and SecDefs) after losing an election.
Did I live in a parallel galaxy during those eight years—that all happened, right?
Presidents are political creatures. War is politics by violent means. So every president deals with war through the lens of political popularity. That’s not all they do, but that calculation is never absent. Presidents have (usually) private moments of conflict over sending people into a deadly fire zone. They also think about their political careers.
A representative sample of US Presidents from both parties who fit that profile: Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama.
And, generally speaking, contra Feaver, escalating a war is almost always in a popular move for a President over the short term. Drawing down is not. In the medium/long term it can cause a negative response, but usually the first reaction is improved public opinion.
The only exception to that trend are very small conflicts where US soldiers get killed and there is an immediate push to get them out–in which case the President will do so. Reagan did it in Lebanon. Clinton did it in Somalia. Again, it’s called politics.
If Presidents punish puny countries, they then become more popular and are widely hailed: Grenada, Panama, etc.
In other words, Presidents always want to look both tough while not getting stuck in a war zone: Johnson, Nixon, George H.W. Bush (Iraq War I), and now Obama in Afghanistan all follow this pattern.
I don’t think any of this makes them less of a Commander in Chief.
Nevertheless, I find US politics (particularly with respect to issues of war and peace) fundamentally unreasonable and self-contradictory. As such, I think the actions of said Presidents (this one included) make a great deal of sense and are the outcome of politics as its practiced. So while I vehemently disagree with Feaver’s take, I also can agree with Scott’s views on the same issue.