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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.

Why Obama Should Not Sweat the “Little Spills” (and Politically, They Are All Little Spills)

The relatively disappointing reaction to Obama’s prime time Oval Office address, against the backdrop of BP CEO Tony Hayward’s Sergeant Schulz-like testimony (“I see nothing! I hear nothing!”) before a congressional committee, and the seemingly nonstop coverage of the spill itself, have collectively contributed to the impression that we’ve reached an “inflection point” in the Gulf oil crisis – but not the one for which the White House hoped.  Instead, critics (see here and here and here) are suggesting that Obama’s handling of the crisis is threatening not just Democrats’ fortunes in the 2010 midterms, but Obama’s reelection chances in 2012.  Perceptions of his leadership are rapidly approaching Carteresque territory, with the daily headlines – Day 59 of the Gulf Crisis! – reminding viewers of Nightline’s nightly announcement of how long Americans were held hostage in Iran during Carter’s presidency.

To support the claim that the Gulf oil spill is in danger of becoming Obama’s hostage crisis, critics note that public support for Obama’s handling of the spill has dropped. In this regard, Tom Bevan posts the following poll results at RealclearPolitics:

According to Bevan, that’s a drop in the public’s approval of Obama’s handling of the oil spill of 18 points in the latest AP/GFK poll, 21 points according to Fox News and 13 in CNN’s polls. As Bevan notes,  other polls find a majority of Americans criticizing the President for his failure to act quickly enough in responding to the crisis, and for being too lenient on BP.

Perhaps most alarming, the latest USAToday/Gallup poll indicates a majority (51%) of all adults (not just likely voters) now believe Obama should not be reelected in 2012.  All this has not been lost on the White House, which explains, I think, the concerted public relations efforts in recent weeks to show that Obama is on top of the issue; he has made four trips to the Gulf coastline, in addition to his nationwide address, and his top aides have fanned out to news shows defending the administration’s response.

At the risk of heresy, let me make the following assertion: politically speaking, the oil spill is not that big a deal. Note: I’m not trying to minimize its environmental implications, nor the urgency to cap the leak.  But politically it should not be Obama’s top priority.  Indeed, rather than pursuing a no-win strategy of appearing to be on top of an issue over which he has no control, Obama would be far better off by distancing himself from the spill.  The reason is that the public is smart enough to realize he’s not responsible for the initial explosion at the oil rig, and they still believe BP should take primary responsibility for the cleanup.

But what about these disastrous poll numbers?  It’s true that the public doesn’t think Obama has handled the spill very well – but that’s because Obama continues to insist that he’s in charge, and yet the oil continues to spew.  If we step back from oil spill, however, and look at Obama’s overall approval numbers (see the polls above), they’ve barely budged from what they were before the spill, suggesting that the public is fully capable of separating their judgment of his reaction to the spill from their overall evaluations of him as president.  Bevan suggests that Obama’s numbers should have gone up after the spill as the public rallies behind the President.  I’m skeptical – the oil spill is not the same rally-round-the-flag type event that normally boosts a President’s poll ratings.

Instead, I think the lesson from these polls is that the public is quite capable of distinguishing Obama’s reaction to the spill from his overall performance as president. This distinction is easy to lose if one focuses solely on the daily diatribes about the oil spill that continue to dominate cable shows and opinion columns.  But we shouldn’t confuse the punditocracy’s need to fill airtime with the real concerns of  most Americans.

What about those reelection numbers?  Same thing: they haven’t changed from what they were before the spill.  Here’s the Gallup poll data showing that despite the perception that he’s mishandled the spill, support for his reelection hasn’t changed from what Gallup was recording before the explosion:

In short, there’s no evidence yet that the public’s overall assessment of Obama’s presidency is being eroded by his ham-handed reaction to the oil crisis.  The reason why, I think, is because when prioritizing their concerns, the public is far more interested in jobs and the economy.    Oil spewing from a broken pipe may make for great visuals, and it certainly affects the livelihood of the Gulf coast residents.  It may even be one of the greatest environmental disasters in U.S. history (although at this point it’s not even the biggest oil spill).  But for most Americans, it’s an abstraction – something they see on their television screens but which doesn’t affect them directly.  Indeed, a slight majority of Americans continue to favor off-shore drilling for oil (although there is less support for expanding those efforts beyond current levels).

Given these dynamics, Obama would be far better off stepping back from the Gulf spill and turning over daily responsibility to a cabinet secretary, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, or some other figure. Let Salazar become the administration’s public face of this disaster.  Obama should move on to those issues – jobs, the economy, Afghanistan – that are of greater concern to voters, and over which he may have greater influence.  The alternative – repeated shots of him expressing concern about the spill interspersed with video of crude bubbling to the surface and images of oil-slicked seagulls – simply reminds voters of how little he can do to stop it.

On Commencement Day, In Honor of My Favorite Student

It’s that time again.  As I have done ever since I started this blog in the late 1950’s, I take time out on Middlebury’s commencement day to sit down in my recliner before the fireplace,  light the used motor oil, pour a deep glass of single malt (thanks Paul), and raise a toast to you, My Favorite Student (MFS).

You know who you are.

You showed up at that first 8 am class in Twilight Hall, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and remained awake for at least the first ten minutes of my opening lecture on why you should study American politics.  Moreover, you kept coming to the class even after the Political Science department, in its collective wisdom, loosened the requirements so that a basic course in American politics was no longer necessary to obtain a political science degree.  (That’s right, Parents.  And you paid over $200,000 for this education! Don’t blame me – I voted against it. Write your Congressman.  Or Trustee);

Your comments to this site made the Presidential Power blog one of the top 50 blogs for  political science students .  (Admittedly, this from a site that offers “online degrees”.  And there’s probably only 50 blogs dealing with political science, but nonetheless….besides, the progressive FiredogLake website likes us too!)

You listened to my lecture on the consequences of a legal career (the rhinoplasty to repair damage from cocaine inhalation, the estranged children, the massive debt, the adultery with the pool boy, the long hours writing briefs defending BP ["It was just a little spill! In Louisiana, for god's sake!"] and, of course, the terminal cancer) and still asked me for a letter of recommendation to law school;

You wondered, after hearing my lecture on the American Revolution, during which I quote from memory and with perfect inflection Captain Kirk’s famous speech about the Constitution- “We, the PEOPLE!… Down the centuries you have slurred the meaning of the words!”: “Who’s Captain Kirk?”;

You understand why, despite your parents’ skepticism, political science is considered the “queen” of the social sciences, and why four years studying it has better prepared you to improve the world than if you had chosen any other major (but especially economics) – unless you blow it and go to law school;

You didn’t take my word for it, but asked for evidence;

You didn’t make me explain “Teabagging” during my lecture on the Tea Party movement;

You gave me a gift of a bottle of scotch after the final class lecture that wasn’t Old Smugglers and didn’t come in a plastic bottle;

You learned, from my grading policy, that 90% of success in life comes from just showing up;

You figured out that my political views and partisan affiliation are exactly the same as yours;

You entered my blog contests for a chance to win an “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid!” t-shirt, and then sent me a picture of you wearing your prize.

You stifled a gasp when entering my office, and managed not to fixate on the coffee stains and food remnants.

You laughed at my jokes (“So these two hunters from Ripton went searching for bear….”) even after hearing them four times.

You understood that when I hectored you in class, it was to make a broader teaching point, and not (necessarily) to put you on the spot, (although your discomfiture was an added benefit);

You acknowledged that in the celebrated Dry-Dickinson exchange regarding Sarah Palin, I had the stronger argument;

You remembered not to bring your Strawberry, U-Pad or other handheld device to exams;

You wrote me a seemingly endless stream of emails before exams, asking all the questions that the other students wanted to ask but were too lazy (or nervous) to do so;

You realize that when we next see each other, I will have completely forgotten your name, but will remember everything you ever said to, or wrote for me, during your entire four years at Middlebury.  (Which means at our next meeting you must greet me by first telling me who you are.)

You compensated for my failed efforts, in the biannual election night presentations at the Grille with my colleague Bert Johnson, to avoid allowing the event to turn into a giant pep rally for a party or candidate, by bringing me free beer all night long;

And, finally, you taught me more than you realize during your four years here.  Students often don’t appreciate that our interactions with them provide the impetus and the spark for keeping up with developments in our field of interest, as well as learning about related events (like how to acquire The Cable).  The questions you ask me often became the source of lectures (or blogs!)  In short, education at Middlebury is an interactive process – a two-way street – from which I benefit as much, or more, than do you. That is why I stay in this job despite the fact that, as you all know, I work for free.

So, assuming you don’t get heat stroke today, let me end by sending you – My Favorite Student – best wishes in all your future endeavors.  Do stay in touch, and remember to thank your parents for getting you vaccinated, for rousing you out of bed for all those 5 am trips to the skating rink; for the endless piano lessons; for reminding you to finish those application essays; for instilling a strong sense of values based on discipline, hard work, and rooting for Boston sports teams; and for forking over the $76,000 a year (none of which went to me) to attend Middlebury College.  They did all this because they love you and they want to be sure you don’t have to move back home again.

And parents, you should realize that although you won’t ever see that money again, and that your kids are in fact going to move back home for a bit, it was money well spent.  Contrary to what you probably believe deep in your soul, you have not squandered your retirement, and your child did not waste four years by majoring in political science.  Read the papers.  Listen to the news.  More than any other discipline, it is politics that most determines whether tomorrow will be an improvement over today.  Your child has a head start in fulfilling that promise.

So, to paraphrase the late, great Richard Neustadt, “Trust the kids.”  After all, you were one too and look how your life turned out!  (Ok, never mind ….)

P.S. To My Favorite Student: If you would like to continue to get direct email notifications of new presidential power blog postings, please remember to provide me with an updated email before your Middlebury email expires. And the same goes for you parents out there who also wish to get blog notifications.  Unlike the Middlebury alumni office, I’ll never ask for money.  (But I won’t turn down an endowed chair!)

Good luck, stay in touch, and may your scotch bottle never run dry…. .

A Personal Comment

Hello all,

I want to take a moment to discuss a personal matter.

There’s a lot of rumors going around that the administration here at Middlebury College is set to announce in a few hours that the New Library will be named after me.  I want to set the record straight: if chosen, I will refuse the honor.

It’s true that I’ve contributed $1.55 or more to the New Library fund on a weekly basis, asking nothing in return (except maybe sometimes a cup of coffee). I’m not saying I don’t deserve the honor because, frankly, I do.  The Presidential Power blog alone is enough to merit naming a building after me.  And yet I teach classes and conduct research too!

But, as I’ve told my students many times, I’m not in this profession for the glory, or the meaningless awards.  No, to me seeing the tears run down the face of a first-year student as they grasp – truly grasp! – the significance of Federalist #10 – well, that’s all the reward I need. That and a few months off every summer.  And maybe during the academic year as well. Oh, and winter term too – I could use that off.

I want to thank everyone who lobbied on my behalf. And I admit it would have been nice to show my kids the new library with my name emblazoned above the door.   But in the end, what is more permanent?  A structure of bricks and mortar – or the knowledge imparted in this blog?

I think we know the answer to that.