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Live Blogging the Republican Debate (Nevada Version)

Do you think Rick Santorum gets style points for singing the national anthem?

Perry looks energized – in the introductions.  Let’s see if it lasts.

Gingrich has the best opening introduction, one that targets Obama, not other Republicans.  Right from the Gingrich debate playbook.

Looks like Cain is the early target.  Welcome to frontrunner status.

Here’s a new twist: Cain’s 9-9-9 plan will lower birthrates!  Gotta love Santorum.  And comparing it to European value added tax – ouch! Socialism!

Looks like the sales tax will be the target tonight.

Perry is ready – so far.  (And what’s this “brother” talk from Perry?)  Perry also makes a nice gesture to New Hampshire voters.

By the way, this is the first time I’ve heard Cain acknowledge that he might make concessions to low income earners in his sales tax provisions. (Jack – this answers the question you raised today).

Romney has been strangely silent.   Ooops – now he piles on.  Mixing his fruit, but it is the line everyone is using against Cain’s plan.

Poor Herman – wonder how he feels about leading the polls now?

Gingrich continues to play elder statesman, and does it effectively.  And yet he takes a gentle jab on Cain’s lack of experience too, in noting that significant policy change takes years, and that we should be focusing on plans that are feasible and have an immediate impact.

Part of the problem with this format is that it’s hard to distinguish the various economic plans being discussed.  Bachmann is particularly vulnerable here.

Perry is back on the energy kick.  I’m not sure what’s driving this, unless he links it to his yet to be revealed economic plan.  Meanwhile he continues to trip over his own words.  Does anyone know what he just said here?

Santorum also has the Bachmann problem – his plan sounds pretty much like the other plans.  Finally, someone takes on Romney on Romneycare.  Will they come to blows? Will Mitt’s hair get mussed?  Santorum looks ready to blow here.  Good stuff!

The best attack on Romney yet – and Romney now seems to defend his plan by saying Massachusetts voters like it – not the best political defense when you have to rest on support from a Democratic state.

(Ever notice how Bachmann laughs at everything Newt says?)  Newt also takes on Mitt in more subtle fashion than Rick, but perhaps more effectively.  Mitt is ready with a nice retort, throwing Newt’s past support for individual mandates against him, but the longer this goes on, the more it focuses on the wrong issue for Mitt.  He needs to get off this topic.  Ah, saved by Bachmann.

Cooper so far is moderating with a very light touch, which has allowed the food fight to break out.

By the way, what happened to Cain?  Is he still on stage?  It’s tough with 8 people to get equal input. 

Here’s Cain on health care – let’s see how he does when he gets off 9-9-9.

Perry has got to be careful on the immigration issue here – because Romney will come back here.  Wow, bringing up hiring illegal immigrants – this is an old story. Did he say the “heith” of hypocrisy?   

This was the obvious opening, and Romney didn’t miss it: back to the illegal immigrants tuition issue again.  Perry should have seen this coming. 

Interesting exchange here.  Mitt sounds miffed.  He’s giving a pretty good defense here to Perry’s accusations which seem a little forced, frankly.  Perry seems overly amped this time – what medication is he on?

Perry is doing a little better on the immigration issue, although the Predator drone idea can be easily misconstrued.  

Bachmann is back on Obama’s case with the red meat for her base:  build a fence, English only language, etc.  It gets applause, but is it feasible? 

Perry just isn’t a smooth debater.  And the immigration issue just isn’t a winner for him anymore than healthcare is for Romney. Frankly, Perry’s attack on the Romney lawn care crew just doesn’t seem to be resonating.

Cooper questions the 14th amendment, but it is a stupid question and no one wants to respond, and rightly so. Instead, Cain pivots to jobs and Perry to energy and mining in Nevada.  That will teach Cooper not to play professor.

Santorum continues to hammer away at the family values angle, but so far without much to show for it.

(Kate – Romney, I think, is vulnerable on Romneycare, but at this point he has his defense down pat, so it’s not clear to me how much his opponents are going to gain on this issue.  But that won’t stop them from trying.)

Yucca Mountain – Newt has come the closest anyone on the panel will in endorsing Yucca as a nuclear waste site. This is a sensitive issue for the locals, and there’s no payoff tonight for endorsing Yucca.  Move on.

Did Perry just forget which amendment deals with states rights?

The argument is getting a bit bogged down here on who supported TARP, and why. 

This is probably Bachmann’s strongest point tonight – she’s coming across as relevant rather than extremist in discussing the impact of foreclosure on families and women.

Here’s Cain’s chance to walk down the “Blame Yourself” quote, and he doesn’t take it – instead he doubles down on the quote, to big applause. Cue Paul and the attack on the Federal Reserve.   It’s deja vu all over again.

Paul’s on pretty strong ground in playing the “don’t blame the victims card” and pointing the finger at “Wall St”, which is a pretty convenient target.

Break Number 2.  If pundits are waiting for “the moment” that begins to whittle the field, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen tonight. Everyone is playing their familiar roles.  Romney is holding his own, Cain remains unflappable, Perry is struggling once again, Paul is attacking the Federal Reserve and Bachmann promises to fight the good fight. I think Newt slipped a bit when he went negative on Mitt, but otherwise he’s been strong.  Santorum, meanwhile, remains angry.

Interesting response here by Santorum to the “Mormon cult” question – he seems to be defending Mitt, but in some respects he refocuses attention on the tenets of the Mormonism.  Newt, in some respects, does the same – he defends Mitt but invites further questioning of Mitt’s beliefs.   It will be interesting to see what Mitt says here. 

Mitt’s response is both a defense of his faith but also a political attack on Perry for not taking a stronger stance against the Pastor.  But Mitt doesn’t want to linger on this issue either.

Haven’t had much foreign policy discussion this electoral season.  Bachmann gets on her horse here, without bothering to answer the question of how much to cut defense.   Newt gets a chance here to reprise his attack on the “super committee”, but this time by laying out a basis for making foreign policy decisions.  Good job Newt, even if we’ve heard the “amputation” metaphor before.

Here’s the obligatory “foreign aid” question – people continually overestimate how much this country spends on foreign aid.  It’s a pittance, but it’s always the first place people go to when looking to cut “waste” from government.  This is another red meat question. 

Interesting differences arise on the foreign aid question.  Bachmann is on her game tonight when it comes to foreign policy issues.

Does anyone in the audience remember the Iran-contra affair?   I’m not sure this example resonates with very many of them.   


Santorum’s response on the electability question is pretty darn good.  Not that it changes his chances much.

Pretty heated exchange here between Perry and Romney, but I’m surprised Perry doesn’t go after the flip-flopper issue a bit more.

Newt gets a chance to finish up by bashing the media and offering to reprise the Lincoln-Douglas debate.   Which is a fitting way to end this debate!

 Ok, let the spin begin.

I was surprised by how personal some of the exchanges were, but substantively, there wasn’t alot of new ground broken here.  Perry was more energized, but his energy struck me as sometimes used to push petty issues, or issues that have been vetted previously (the illegal workers issue has been covered pretty well in the last election cycle).  I thought Cain got through relatively unscathed considering that it started out as “gang up on the Herminator night”.  But he seemed a bit shaky on the foreign policy issues and his comments earlier today suggesting he would negotiate with Al Quaeda if they held Americans came back to bite him a bit.  He had to backtarck on that.  I’m still dubious that he has staying power, but he did nothing to hurt himself tonight.  Whether he can turn this early support into a stronger infrastructure in key states remains an open question.

Since the next debate won’t be for a month or so, it will be interesting to see whether any of the second-tier candidates will be reassessing their candidacies.  Note that Huntsman didn’t bother showing up. 

That’s it from here.  I’ll try to get a follow up post tomorrow..

The Perils of Government By Remote Control

The Washington Post has issued parts 2 and 3 of its series titled Top Secret America.  Part two examines the role of private contractors. Jonathan Bernstein’s recent blog posting, cross-listed here at Salon, discussing the first part of the WaPo series is well worth reading, not least for the vitriol it elicited from some progressive bloggers because Bernstein had the temerity to suggest presidents do not control the national security apparatus.  That pushback is indicative of a widespread misunderstanding, I think, of just what the federal government does, and how it does it.

Consider part two of the WaPo series, which deals with the role of private contractors in government.  (This also gives me an opportunity to plug the work  of two of my colleagues,  Kateri Carmola and Allison Stanger, both of whom have written books about private contracting – see here and here)

There are two points to keep in mind when reading this portion of the WaPo series. First, the outsourcing of services to private contractors did not start with the War on Terror, and it isn’t restricted to the national security realm.  Second, we should probably avoid blanket generalizations in assessing this practice.  Any effort to do so needs to weigh the tradeoffs involved – the gain (or loss!) in efficiency versus loss of accountability, for instance – a calculus that I’ve no doubt differs across different policies areas and transactions.

The contracting of services to private firms, however, helps reinforce the larger point I’ve made regarding the misconceptions of presidents’ ability to control the bureacracy – misconceptions evident in some of the comments to Bernstein’s post.  The following table, based on data gathered by Matt D’Auria for an article I just finished on this topic, shows the increase in private contracting just since 2000 (which is as far back as Matt could find data):

The trend toward greater reliance on private contractors, however, is simply a small slice of a larger movement dating back decades in which much of what government does is outsource functions to third parties.   Consider the following table that shows the annual percentage increase in the government spending and regulations compared to the number of employees since 1940:

It shows that federal employment has grown incrementally since the end of World War II, whereas the growth rate in the size of the federal budget, and the number of federal regulations issued, has skyrocketed. What explains these different trends?  It reflects what Hugh Heclo first identified in the 1970’s as a movement toward “government by remote control.”  Simply put, most of what the federal government does is cut checks, either to pay for services provided elsewhere or for income maintenance programs (social security, Medicare, unemployment, etc.)   In other words, the government is not in the widget-making business – increasingly it’s in the outsourcing business

Note that not all of this outsourcing goes to private entities; there’s been a steady increase in federal aid to state and local governments as well, as this chart indicates:

Now, this federal money comes with strings attached – that’s Congress’ means of holding recipients accountable.  Look again at the chart above (Figure 2) showing the explosion in the number of pages of the federal register, which lists government rules and regulations.  That’s the cost of doing business via third parties.  Some might call this needless red tape, but that judgment can’t be made in the abstract – one needs to weigh any gain in efficiency with outsourcing via the cost of maintaining accountability through rules and regulations.

What does this mean for the President?  Consider the Gulf oil spill.  Clearly the MMS proved lax in its efforts to regulate the oil industry.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that cozy relationship was implicitly encouraged by members of Congress who were mostly focused on the revenues generated by off-shore drilling.  When the Deepwater Horizon explosion occurred, however, the public didn’t hold Congress primarily accountable – they looked to the President for explanations.  That includes not just understanding the faulty permitting process conducted by the MMS, but also responsibility for plugging the leak, and for the Gulf cleanup.  And where does Obama turn to accomplish these last two goals? Toward a private company – BP -  still another manifestation of government by remote control, with an emphasis on remote rather than control.

Many of my political science colleagues, as well as those who criticized Bernstein for his post on this topic, think that because the president is a single actor, he can exercise dominant influence over the executive branch. The reality, however, is that a system of government by third party does not lend itself to presidential control – but the unitary nature of the executive office does make it easier to blame the President when bureaucracies fail.  In this respect, presidents get the worst of both worlds.  The very diffusion of responsibility that accompanies a government exercised by remote control increases the tendency for people to want to hold someone accountable when things go wrong.   That someone is usually the President.

Obama Take Note! The Paradox of Politicization, Or Why Presidents Do Not Really Control the Executive Branch

Today’s Washington Post contains a fascinating – and sobering look at the sprawling national intelligence community that has mushroomed in the wake of 9-11.  For long time readers of this blog, the article will sound familiar themes, since it largely supports my analysis of the failures of the the post 9-11 reforms – including the creation of a new super-coordinating office of national intelligence headed by a director of national intelligence (DNI) – to solve the  problems that allowed the 9-11 attacks to occur. Indeed, these reforms may have exacerbated the problem, and in perfectly foreseeable ways.

Recall that analysts blamed 9-11 on the failure of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information that would have enabled them to “connect the dots” to reveal the plan to hijack planes and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and, in all likelihood, the Capitol. The DNI was established to prevent a recurrence of that bureaucratic failure. The idea was to create one central coordinating office whose job would be to overcome the jurisdictional boundaries and turf wars that prevented law enforcement and intelligence agencies from sharing information. In fact, the DNI has failed to accomplish this mission; rather than break down information barriers, it has established still another bureaucratic layer through which information must flow before it is analyzed and acted upon.  The result, as I wrote in my analysis of the failed Christmas Day crotch-bombing, has been to slow intelligence analysis and delay the ability of  agencies to react to that intelligence.   Rather than connecting dots, the organizational reforms have simply created more dots that need connecting.

As evidence, here’s what the WaPo story says about the crotch-bombing incident which I discussed in some detail in previous posts:

“Last fall, after eight years of growth and hirings, the enterprise was at full throttle when word emerged that something was seriously amiss inside Yemen. In response, President Obama signed an order sending dozens of secret commandos to that country to target and kill the leaders of an al-Qaeda affiliate. In Yemen, the commandos set up a joint operations center packed with hard drives, forensic kits and communications gear. They exchanged thousands of intercepts, agent reports, photographic evidence and real-time video surveillance with dozens of top-secret organizations in the United States.

That was the system as it was intended. But when the information reached the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington for analysis [the NTCT reports directly to the DNI], it arrived buried within the 5,000 pieces of general terrorist-related data that are reviewed each day. Analysts had to switch from database to database, from hard drive to hard drive, from screen to screen, just to locate what might be interesting to study further.

As military operations in Yemen intensified and the chatter about a possible terrorist strike increased, the intelligence agencies ramped up their effort. The flood of information into the NCTC became a torrent.

Somewhere in that deluge was even more vital data. Partial names of someone in Yemen. A reference to a Nigerian radical who had gone to Yemen. A report of a father in Nigeria worried about a son who had become interested in radical teachings and had disappeared inside Yemen.

These were all clues to what would happen when a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab left Yemen and eventually boarded a plane in Amsterdam bound for Detroit. But nobody put them together because, as officials would testify later, the system had gotten so big that the lines of responsibility had become hopelessly blurred. “There are so many people involved here,” NCTC Director Leiter told Congress.

“Everyone had the dots to connect,” DNI Blair explained to the lawmakers. “But I hadn’t made it clear exactly who had primary responsibility.”

And so Abdulmutallab was able to step aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. As it descended toward Detroit, he allegedly tried to ignite explosives hidden in his underwear. It wasn’t the very expensive, very large 9/11 enterprise that prevented disaster. It was a passenger who saw what he was doing and tackled him. “We didn’t follow up and prioritize the stream of intelligence,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan explained afterward. “Because no one intelligence entity, or team or task force was assigned responsibility for doing that follow-up investigation.”

Blair acknowledged the problem. His solution: Create yet another team to run down every important lead. But he also told Congress he needed more money and more analysts to prevent another mistake.

More is often the solution proposed by the leaders of the 9/11 enterprise.”

My point here is not to pat myself on the back because WaPo came to the same conclusion as I did.  Instead, it is to remind you that this is not an isolated incident, but in fact is a reflection of a more deep-seated problem with efforts to reform the intelligence bureaucracy in the wake of 9-11. The failure to anticipate the Christmas Day crotch-bombing, or the Fort Hood shooting, points to a larger problem, one that many of my political science colleagues who write about the presidency and the bureaucracy have failed to grasp.  Without going too deeply into the details of what might strike some as an arcane academic dispute, there are some presidency scholars who believe the President is well situated to manage the federal bureaucracy.  Through his control of budgeting, personnel appointments, and legislative and regulatory policy, they argue, the President possesses levers by which to make the bureaucracy respond to his policy preferences.  Over time, they claim, presidents have used these tools to create a more presidency-friendly executive branch.  A key reason they are able to do so, these scholars argue, is because presidents are unitary actors, whereas Congress suffers from significant collective action problems. The result is that in the struggle to control the executive branch, presidents have a built-in institutional advantage.

Without putting too fine a point on it, this analysis is, in my view, hopelessly naïve. The idea that the President is a “unitary actor” betrays a gross ignorance of the environment in which presidents operate, and of the process by which presidents make decisions.  In most cases involving the bureaucracy, their “unilateral” choices are in fact based on options presented to them by other actors and institutions who rarely if ever share the president’s political or institutional perspective. The idea that presidents’ act “unilaterally” is true in only one respect: they are held responsible for the actions of the executive branch bureaucracy.  But to assume they control that bureaucracy is – as Obama is discovering – pure fantasy.  (Do you think Obama controlled the MMS – the agency that approved BP’s permit request to drill in the Gulf?)

The “levers” of control cited by these political scientists who believe presidents can manage the executive branch are of far less use to presidents than they appear to be on paper, in part because presidents don’t know what to do with them and in part because they are shared with other actors.  The result is that the notion that the executive branch is a unified entity that responds to the commands of one man – the President – at the top is a gross and misleading simplification.  I am currently working on a book project with Andy Rudalevige that develops these points in more detail and I’ll try to draw on that research in future posts to develop this argument.

But consider the post-9-11 reforms.  At first glance, this seems striking evidence that presidents can control the bureaucracy.  In this case, President Bush established a coordinating czar, the DNI, superimposed on the existing bureaucracy, who reports directly to the President. The President can appoint the DNI (with Senate approval), and – as Obama recently did – fire him.  The reality, however, as Obama discovered and as the WaPo article documents, is that the DNI lacks the control over agency budgets and personnel necessary to fulfill this coordinating mission.  Why does the DNI lack this coordinating authority?  Largely because the agencies that were supposed to be coordinated used their political influence to make sure Congress prevented any real loss of autonomy when the DNI was established.  On paper, then, it appears the President, through the creation of the DNI, has “presidentialized” the intelligence gathering process – the DNI’s office has exploded in size (it now numbers some 1,500) and has a huge budget.  In fact, this growth masks a relative lack of authority – the intelligence bureaucracy is arguably less responsive to presidential control than it was before the reforms.  Rather than “presidentialized”, the intelligence bureaucracy has effectively resisted reform – resistance largely due to Congressional support.

The failure to establish true coordinating authority centered in a DNI reporting directly to the President reveals a more fundamental problem – one that is at the heart of my research.  I call it the paradox of politicization. Simply put, the more presidents try to politicize the administrative levers by which to move the executive branch bureaucracy – personnel appointments, budgeting, and legislative and regulatory clearance – the more they erode the administrative capacity of the very agencies they seek to control. In the long run – as Obama discovered with the crotch-bombing, or in the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, when agencies fail to fulfill their mission, it is the president who suffers.  In short, efforts to strengthen their control over the bureaucracy have weakened presidential authority – precisely the opposite result presidents hoped to achieve.

As part of my research, I recently talked to a former employee of the Bureau of the Budget who pointed out that at one time the BoB (now OMB) had a division of administrative management that was staffed with careerists who possessed a wealth of knowledge and expertise regarding executive branch functions and history.  (For those who are interested, Andy and I have written (gated) about the creation of the BoB’s management division during FDR’s presidency.)  During the last several decades, however, as presidents have layered the upper level of the OMB with political appointees, the administrative management functions have atrophied, in part because the careerists with the relevant expertise simply have less contact with the OMB director, to say nothing of the President.  The former BoB official noted that during discussion to create the Department of Homeland Security, only one OMB official was involved, and he was largely a bystander in a process controlled by the White House’s political appointees. Today, he told me, there is no one in government with the expertise or knowledge to advise presidents about how to organize the executive branch.  That institutional memory is simply gone, a victim of the politicization that so many political scientists mistakenly view as evidence of enhanced presidential control.

The study of bureaucracy is not a sexy topic. And the loss of administrative competence that I allude to here may strike some as a rather uninteresting topic, better suited for an academic journal than a popular blog. But it has real consequences for the effectiveness of government programs – and for the political fortunes of presidents who must deal with the misguided perceptions, created in part by political scientists, that presidents actually control the executive branch.  The sooner we dismiss this misconception, the more quickly we can address the problems cited in today’s WaPo article.

Making His Presidency McChrystal Clear

What is presidential leadership?

I think it is this. Almost all presidents reach a point when they are faced with choosing among unpalatable alternatives under conditions of great uncertainty and with potentially great consequences, both for their own political future but also for the nation.  It is at these times that presidents must decide: what are my core beliefs – my bedrock principles that help me decide when there are no good choices and no sure outcomes? What sustains me when events go wrong – when I am surrounded by doubt and there is no consensus on what to do? What am I about?

This is the essence of leadership: defining those values on which one is willing to stake one’s presidency. For Lincoln, it was to preserve the Union. Franklin Roosevelt believed government could protect citizens against capitalism’s worst excesses. Reagan sought to restore Americans’ faith in traditional values of individualism, small government and free enterprise at home, and defend against communism abroad.  Again and again, when offered opportunities to back away from these fundamental beliefs, these presidents refused to do so, even when it cost them politically.

What defines Obama?  To this point I don’t think anyone knows – including him. He won the presidency largely by saying what he was not, and that he represented change – but change to what?  As president he has faced policy choices of immense complexity and significance – a deep economic recession, historic health care reform, an unprecedented oil spill – but none of these have as yet forced him to define his presidency in terms of articulating core beliefs. Instead, the dominant characteristic of his response to these issues is political pragmatism – choosing policy responses primarily on the basis of what he believed possible, as opposed to what he aspired to do. If national politics was a courtroom, Obama’s preferred approach has been to settle rather than go to trial.  His solutions are not based on ideology – there is no right or wrong, no guilty or innocent – there is only a dollar figure.  Politics, to Obama, is the art of closing the deal – not choosing sides.

The virtue of this approach is that he has accomplished a great deal.  Congress passed an $800 billion stimulus bill. It enacted health insurance reform.  BP has agreed to establish a $20 billion escrow fund.  We are on the cusp of reforming financial regulation. These are important accomplishments whose significance should not be diminished.  But they are accomplishments in which Obama chose from a menu of alternatives largely drawn up by others, and when there existed a consensus – not always a strong one, to be sure – to move in a particular direction.  Under these circumstances, Obama’s job has been to sound out the litigants, see who was willing to cut a deal, and negotiate the final price.

This lawyer-like approach, I think, is about to be tested in Afghanistan in a way that no other issue has tested it to date. The reason is that there are no good options there, there is no certain outcome associated with any single option and thus there is nothing remotely resembling a consensus pushing in a particular direction. Progressives think it is the wrong war and are agitating for a complete withdrawal.  Conservatives want Obama to come out and state what they see as both strategically preferable and inevitable: that circumstances come July may dictate a troop increase, not a drawdown, and that no bets are off the table.  The public, unsure, waits for some sign of success while fearing the cost of staying.

That is why I believe Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal is so potentially revealing – not because it signaled that he was “in charge” (as Martin’s comments imply, by overreacting to a perceived slight it may in fact signal just the opposite).  Rather, it is potentially significant (and I stress potentially) because it may force Obama to begin confronting the inherent tension in his politically pragmatic but ultimately untenable decision made last December to build up the American military presence in Afghanistan so that we could draw it down 18 months later.  By coupling the firing of McChrystal with a strongly-worded recommitment to the counterinsurgency policy McChrystal championed, Obama has made it that much harder, come next July, to begin that drawdown if the counterinsurgency goals – giving the Afghans the time to develop the capability to govern themselves and to prevent that country from providing a haven for terrorists – do not yet appear in reach.  As I noted in my comments during his speech announcing McChrystal’s resignation, Obama had doubled down on McChrystal’s strategy, making it in essence his war.

Is this the first step toward defining his presidency?  Note his recent statement that “We didn’t say we’d be switching off the lights and closing the door behind us” come next July and that instead this date is best viewed as the time to begin transfering responsibility to Afghan forces. This is the first signal from him that U.S. military forces may remain in significant numbers long past the July 2011 drawdown date.  But it is not the first such indication from his administration; just last week General Petraeus expressed a similar sentiment in his Senate testimony, and he will almost certainly repeat that refrain during his confirmation hearing this Tuesday.  It will be interesting to see how far he is willing to go in public to push Obama toward stepping back from the drawdown date.

It is unclear to me, based on Obama’s comments during the McChrystal firing, whether he is deciding what he wants to do in Afghanistan, or that he continues to make policy by combining elements from others’ preferred options.  Whatever the McChrystal decisions portends, I see no good reason for Obama to publicly clarify his war aims until after the November midterms. That is why, after all, he scheduled the first review of the counterinsurgency effort for December, when there will have been enough time to begin evaluating the COIN strategy and, not incidentally, when the political landscape will be better defined.

I do believe, however, that the run-up to December, and then the July drawdown date, offers an opportunity for Obama to elucidate – in his own mind – what his presidency is about.  He may as Tom Ricks suggests here, use the July deadline to say “I tried the surge. It didn’t work. We are leaving.”

In this respect, these deadlines offer an opportunity to lead – but it does not mean he will do so. For all the talk about Obama’s “Truman moment” in sacking McChrystal we forget that Truman’s firing of MacArthur did nothing to bring the Korean War to a resolution.  Indeed, Truman’s “take charge” moment obscures the more important failure of his Korean policy: that he allowed his war aims, which initially centered on re-securing the 38th parallel as the boundary between North and South Korea, to expand in the first heady days after MacArthur’s Inchon landing.  That prompted the Chinese counterattack, and led to the stalemate that persisted until Truman left office as one of the least popular presidents in the modern era.

Let me be clear: to define one’s presidency as I suggest Obama must do is no guarantee of success. Bush’s embrace of the surge did not, as yet, guarantee peace and stability in Iraq.  Nor did it secure, as yet, his historical standing.  We honor Lincoln for his single-minded commitment to saving the Union, but without military victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg we very likely would be debating President McClellan’s choice to seek a negotiated peace with the South after 1864.

No one can predict what will happen if we abandon Afghanistan – nor if we build up our military presence there. There is surely risk in either option.  The greater risk, however, is not to choose. By taking that route – by continuing to seek the settlement point rather than go to trial, Obama risks having his choices in Afghanistan determined by others: his military commanders, Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun, the Pakistanis, the progressive wing of the Democratic party and, not least, the American public.  The danger in the strategy of pragmatism is that Obama will continue to do just enough not to lose Afghanistan, but not enough to win there – if winning is possible. It was precisely this politically pragmatic strategy adopted by LBJ that led to disaster in Vietnam.

In what does Obama believe?  What is the essence of his presidency? At this point, it’s McChrystal clear.

To Fire or Not to Fire McChrystal? That’s NOT the Question!

A week ago, in reaction to General David Petraeus’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee (the hearing in which he nearly collapsed), I had begun writing a post arguing that the Gulf Oil spill was obscuring a far more pressing policy issue: the lack of success in the war in Afghanistan, despite Obama’s decision last December to support a military “surge” there. With more than 90,000 U.S. troops now fighting in a war that has lasted longer than the American involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. appears bogged down in a counterinsurgency strategy that may take many more years, or even decades, to achieve its goal of a stable Afghan government.

That issue is obscure no more, thanks to comments attributed to General Stanley McChrystal and his aides in this Rolling Stone interview.  Many critics are interpreting the comments as bordering on military insubordination, and suggesting (see here and here) that Obama will appear weak by not firing McChrystal. Others disagree, claiming the real weakness will come if he appears overly sensitive to comments that, in the end, provide no evidence that McChrystal is undermining Obama’s military strategy (see, for example, here.)

Historical analogies – Truman and MacArthur! Lincoln and McClellan! – are being tossed about as commentators try to put Obama’s decision in some sort of context.

What are we to make of this?  I want to take a third perspective here and argue that McChrystal’s comments are, politically speaking, largely meaningless, and that it doesn’t really matter how Obama responds. His best course of action, I suppose, is to bring McChrystal to the proverbial woodshed, give him a well-publicized but largely meaningless spanking, and send him back to Afghanistan.  After all, there’s no reprise of MacArthur or McClellan here – nowhere does McChrystal question Obama’s strategy. The current press leaks suggest, however, that Obama is positioning himself to do more – that McChrystal has offered his resignation and that Obama may very well accept it.  This will, of course, do nothing to appease critics on either side, but that’s hardly the issue here. Instead, there is a more fundamental problem that will remain no matter how Obama reacts to McChrystal’s comments: last December, after a three-month review, Obama signed on to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops there.  He did so, I argued then, without fully understanding the ramifications of his decision.

In announcing his decision to increase the U.S. military presence, Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by July, 2011 – a deadline that almost everyone with knowledge of the Afghan war thought hopelessly unrealistic. Even if McChrystal is fired, the policy dilemma remains: how do you extricate yourself from Afghanistan per an unrealistic timetable when there are likely to be few positive benefits showing from the counterinsurgency strategy when the drawdown begins?

Look again at the Rolling Stone article. The underplayed but arguably more important portion in it is not the locker-room-style comments of McChystal’s aides – it’s the tension-filled meeting between McChrystal and the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, many of whom believe the surge is not working in part because of the U.S. rules of engagement designed to protect the Afghan population.  They complain bitterly that they are not allowed to fully engage suspected Taliban who are free to move among civilians.

The exchange points to a larger issue not fully addressed by Obama’s lawyer-like military decision to build up and then draw down.  Will the strategy work? In short, it’s not McChrystal’s comments that are the real problem here. As I wrote in my initial post on Obama’s decision to reprise a version of the Iraq “surge” in Afghanistan, Obama took the lawyer’s approach and split the difference between the Biden withdrawal option and the McChrystal “all-in” strategy. In so doing, however, he essentially boxed himself in on terms very close to what McChrystal wanted all along.  With the U.S. military forces mired in what is shaping up to be a very long struggle in Afghanistan, and with U.S. casualties continuing to mount, it will be very hard for Obama to stick to the unrealistic timetable.  If he does adhere to it and begins the drawdown a year from now before the “surge” begins to bear fruit, critics will quite correctly ask: then what was accomplished by sending in the additional 30,000 troops?

Make no mistake about it: for the next few days the pundits will have a field day dissecting Obama’s reaction to McChrystal’s impolitic remarks.  But this says more about the state of today’s media than it does about the importance of the comments, the most damning of which were not even McChrystal’s. The more fundamental issue here is that Obama has mortgaged his presidency in part to a counterinsurgency strategy that has no guarantee of success without an additional contribution of troops and money and a commitment of years, not months, by the United States.  No one believes the surge will have accomplished its goals in the 18-month timetable laid out by Obama before the troop drawdown begins. And so he has left himself with two unpalatable options: remaining in Afghanistan far beyond his deadline for withdrawal, or leaving on terms decidedly less attractive than what he could have achieved by following Biden’s advice six months ago.

To Fire or Not To Fire McChrystal?  That’s not even the question. Instead, Obama should ask: What does it mean to “win” in Afghanistan, and how do we achieve that victory? Those are questions worthy of real debate.

11:12 a.m. Addendum:  For more on whether the counterinsurgency is working on a tactical level, see here.