The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Obama the Commander-in-Chief

The fall-out from Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, has seen much heated debate on President Obama's handling of national security and relations with the military. The following two articles highlight some interesting aspects of that debate. One is critical, the other is favourable. Both address the fundamentals of the role of the US Commander-in-Chief and how Obama is measuring up.

Firstly, this article, by comparing Barack Obama to Abraham Lincoln, makes a thinly-veiled attack on the former's handling of the war in Afghanistan, an attack which fails because it is based on a very poor understanding of Abraham Lincoln's approach to the role of wartime Commander-in-Chief.

In a nutshell, the article claims that Lincoln had the good fortune to find a highly competent general in Ulysses S. Grant and did what every good President should do - delegate the entire conduct of the war to his General and protect him from his detractors, regardless of the potential political consequences. On the other hand, Barack Obama has found a highly competent general in David Petraeus but continuously meddles in his conduct of the Afghan war and places his own party political agenda above national security.

Its a neat comparison, one that will undoubtedly find favour among the readers of this particular newspaper (although it's doubtful that the readers of The Republican-American would need much convincing that Barack Obama is not a very good Commander-in-Chief). However, the pseudo-historical basis for the article is all too easy to disprove and this in turn undermines the article's whole conclusion.

In Supreme Command, Eliot Cohen's seminal work on top-level civil-military relations, the author convincingly argues against the notion (which for a long time was the received wisdom in academic and political circles) that Lincoln merely found a good general and let him get on with his job. In fact, Cohen shows that Lincoln strove to i/ keep a very close eye on what his generals were doing and ii/ become just as knowledgeable, if not more so, than his generals on every detail pertaining to the conduct of the war (for example, technological innovations). Moreover, Lincoln was acutely aware of the unavoidable influence of politics in the conduct of war.
"Lincoln had to educate his generals about the purposes of the war and to remind them of its fundamental political characteristics. He had not merely to create a strategic approach to the war, but to insist that the generals adhere to it... It was Lincoln's understanding of the interplay of war and politics, no less than his ability to absorb military detail and to read human character, that made him the greatest of American war presidents."
The truth is that Abraham Lincoln was a much better war leader than this article gives him credit for and the same may yet prove to be true for Barack Obama. That remains to be seen but the point is that the conclusions of this article are plain wrong, simply because it exhorts Obama to be more like Lincoln but in fact criticises Obama for trying to do the very things that Lincoln did. Obama might be making mistakes but his intentions are sound.

Secondly, on a very closely-related theme, this article from Foreign Policy, aside from being an insightful look at the interplay between politics and strategy, directly addresses Obama's most famous quote from the book - "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party" - in reference to his decision to begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Needless to say, even though few people have actually read the book, the vultures are already circling.

Of course the likes of John Bolton are not really advocating that President Obama completely ignore domestic party politics when making national security decisions. What John Bolton is really doing is making a not-very-subtle attempt to score political points - the truth is that the "cold-blooded, cynical, grotesquely political manipulation of national security" is Bolton's, not Obama's.

However, taking the accusation at face value (for the sake of argument), any serious student of history would not even countenance the notion that strategy and politics should be kept separate.

As Tip O'Neill famously said, "all politics is local". As Stephen Biddle explains, there have been countless examples of the importance of domestic politics in strategic decision-making. To expect otherwise is simply unrealistic.
"Good strategy is politically sustainable strategy. Anything else is unrealistic and self-defeating. And any president who did not worry about the domestic politics of his strategy would be a very poor commander in chief indeed."
We may disagree with Obama's decisions but the fact remains that, in demonstrating his keen awareness of the fundamental link between politics and strategy, he is behaving just as a President - and a Commander-in-Chief - should.

No comments:

Post a Comment