Previewing Tonight’s Speech: Why Obama Adopted the Surge Strategy

At this point, just hours before Barack Obama goes on national television to announce his strategy in Afghanistan, the details of his plan have already been leaked.  Long time readers of this blog will not be surprised to see that Obama has, in essence, adopted the Bush “surge” strategy that proved so successful in Iraq: an escalation in the U.S. military presence by some 30,000 troops combined with a change in tactics designed to secure and hold key portions of Afghanistan while building up the Afghan security capability. Some reports are suggesting, however, that he will couple the announcement of the surge by simultaneously announcing the date at which U.S.  forces will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.

The decision to reprise the Bush strategy is not surprising (as my students have heard me say for several weeks now) for at least three reasons:

1. Obama is by nature a pragmatist who habitually prefers the politically moderate choice, when possible. As the latest Gallup poll indicates, however, there is no “moderate” public position; Americans are almost evenly divided, with about 37% supporting some version of a troop increase, and an almost equal number, 39%, supporting withdrawal. Only a small percentage support essentially maintaining the status quo.

Note, however, that there are clear partisan differences on this issue:

2. Faced with such divergent options, Obama chose the less risky – if not risk free – route. In supporting the surge, he has the template of the Bush success using a similar strategy in Iraq as a guide. The alternative – withdrawing from Afghanistan, may have appealed to his party base.  And it may also be his personal preference (I suspect it is.)  But it represents the riskier policy choice, in that it essentially signals a reversal of the U.S. strategy for combating terrorism to date.  Following his military experts’ advice, in contrast, represents the more conservative and safer choice.  (Note: I am not saying it is the wiser choice.)  We sometimes forget that Bush, in advocating the surge, essentially overruled all his top-ranking military generals in favor of a strategy hatched by a couple of officers who had first-hand experience on the ground fighting the war in Iraq.  There was no template to go on when Bush made his decision – the safer route then was the strategy advocated by almost all his military advisers: a drawdown of U.S. troops  in Iraq. Tom Ricks tells the story quite well here and here.  But Bush paid a huge political price for his decision to buck his generals and escalate the U.S. presence (and we forget that Democrats and Republicans attacked him for taking far too long to come to a decision to reverse strategy there, just as Obama has been criticized for his deliberative approach.)  Bush was willing to pay that price in part because the then current Iraq strategy was failing (as it seems to be now in Afghanistan) but also because he had been reelected and worried less about the political consequences of his actions.  Obama may be temperamentally less willing to make political risky decisions than is Bush.   But he is also at a different stage in his presidency, when the consequences of losing independent support may be larger.

3. Finally – and this is something that my students, particularly international students, often have difficulty grasping – presidents are far less powerful than conventional wisdom suggests when it comes to making decisions regarding military strategy.  The visible face of this month-long deliberative process will appear on our television screens tonight, as Obama announces his decision.  It creates the illusion – and it is an illusion – that the president is a unitary actor, and that the decision is his, and his alone.  But in fact he chose from options developed by and on the advice of foreign policy advisers, many of them better versed in the issues at stake, and with more foreign policy experience. While the political repercussions from this decision will fall most acutely on Obama, the input on which his decision was based came from many sources, each with their own interests at stake.  It was inconceivable to me that Obama, in the aftermath of the effectiveness of the surge in Iraq, would muster the political strength to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan.  Remember, he campaigned on the premise that Afghanistan was ground zero in the fight against terrorism.  A decision to withdraw now would have required a huge expenditure in political capital on Obama’s part – not just in terms of convincing the public, but in winning the support of the military establishment and their supporters in Congress.

With this in mind, what should we look for in tonight’s speech?  I believe the most essential information he can provide is explaining how the American public can determine “success” in Afghanistan.  What are we trying to accomplish, and how will we know we have accomplished it?  In previous policy speeches – as in his last national address on health care – Obama has suffered from a speechwriting process that suffered from the “too many cooks” syndrome.  The result has been speeches that try to do too much, and as a consequence lack a central theme or simple clarity.  If Obama tries to both justify expanding our presence in Afghanistan and setting a deadline for beginning a troop drawdown, he risks muddying his message again.

These are the hard decisions – the ones in which no matter what the president does he will be opposed by half the country.  When opinions are so polarized, there’s little benefit in trying to appease both sides.  Explain the decision, take the criticism, and move forward.

The speech starts at 8 p.m.  I’ll try to live blog the address if I can.

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