The Grand Old President’s Afghan Strategy: He Marched Them Up The Hill…

How predictable was President Obama’s primetime announcement last Wednesday that the U.S. will begin drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, starting with a 10,000 troop reduction by the end of this year?  Last January, and again this past May, I tasked students in two different classes to simulate the decision process Obama would likely employ in deciding what steps to take in Afghanistan as the July draw-down date drew nigh.  In both classes, the student playing Obama, after listening to his “advisers” push a variety of policy options, ranging from an extended military commitment with a troop increase to a complete and immediate troop withdrawal, came to almost the same decision as did the real President.  In choosing to split the difference between his more “hawkish” and “dovish” advisers, of course, my students played Obama true to form; he is not one to adopt extreme measures from either side of the political spectrum.  Instead, Wednesday’s decision hewed closely to the strategy Obama outlined when he first announced the surge in December, 2009:  a limited U.S. escalation designed to buy time for Afghan forces so that they might develop the capacity to take over the nation’s security.  In announcing the phased troop withdrawal, Obama is gambling that his strategy has worked.  Only time will tell.

Equally predictably, both Republicans and Democrats voiced displeasure with Obama’s decision for a slow drawdown. Progressive Democrats are disappointed that Obama did not use Bin Laden’s death as a catalyst for accelerating the U.S. withdrawal timetable.  They point out that under Obama’s announced schedule, only 33,000 troops will be withdrawn by the end of next summer and U.S. military forces will remain in Afghanistan until 2014.  This means some 70,000 troops will still be in Afghanistan by this time next year – more than twice the 32,000 troops Obama inherited from Bush when he took office.  This is not the change for which Obama’s progressive supporters had hoped.

Neither did Obama’s decision sit well with his military advisers, who reportedly warned the President that the gains resulting from the recent troop surge are fragile, and easily reversed in the event of an American withdrawal.  The most strident criticism, however, came from Republicans who chastised Obama for ending the surge by the end of next summer, before the conclusion of the traditional “fighting season” which lasts another 3-4 months.  They openly wondered why Obama did not accept his generals’ advice to allow the “surge” to have its full impact by extending it until the end of 2012.

If the carping from the partisan extremes was predictable, so too was Obama’s decision to choose a strategy that largely ignored both.  By ending the surge early, in military terms, Obama will be able to cite the troop drawdown during the 2012 election campaign, rather than waiting until after the election as his military commanders advised. And that is the key to understanding the timing and substance of Obama’s announcement Wednesday night.  He is in the middle of an election campaign whose outcome will largely turn on independent voters. In an earlier post, I noted that the post-Bin Laden killing “bump” in Obama’s approval had, as predicted, almost entirely dissipated scarcely a month later.  But notice where Obama has lost the most crucial support, as revealed by this Gallup Poll taken from June 6-12:

Democrats remain strongly behind Obama, at levels close to what they were before Bin Laden was killed.  Republicans remain almost solidly against the President, although Obama is still polling 5% higher among them than before Bin Laden’s assassination. But among independents, Obama has dropped 5% from the post-Bin Laden high, back close to where he was before Bin Laden’s death.  As foreign policy recedes from the news, and the focus returns to the economy, support among independents is likely to weaken still more.  Clearly, if he is to win reelection, Obama must stem the erosion in support among this group.

Equally ominous, Obama’s support is the lowest among the two age groups who are most likely to vote in 2012.

Gallup shows that the post-Bin Laden “bump” has disappeared among voters aged 50 or more, although it lingers among those younger than 50.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s announcement of a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan will mollify this older cohort.  I suspect it will not, primarily because this group is largely focused on the economy, health care and entitlement reform.

At this point, some 17 months before standing for reelection, there was never much chance that Obama would use Bin Laden’s death to radically alter his Afghan strategy in the way progressives had hoped.  But neither was he likely to follow his military commanders’ advice to see the surge through to at least the end of next year’s fighting season. Purists will carp at this injection of election politics into military strategy, but the reality is that the two cannot be separated.  Presidents are not simply the commander in chief – they are elected officials as well, whose ability to achieve policy goals depends first and foremost on remaining in office.

In rejecting the advice from the partisan purists at both ends of the political spectrum,  Obama emulated the Grand Old Duke of York who faced a similar policy dilemma, and responded much as Obama did, as this traditional children’s nursery rhyme, slightly edited for modern sensibilities, makes clear:

“Oh, the Grand Old President

He had thirty thousand men;

He marched them off to Afghanistan

And he brought them home again

And when they were there, they were there,

And when they were home, they were home,

And when they were only half-way home,

They were neither here nor there.”

Let’s hope Humpty Dumpty is not next in the policy briefing book.

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