*The one that says ‘Bad Motherf#cker’ on it.
As a young, and presumably naive Obama Administration was shaping AfPak policy way back in aught-nine, there was a lot of hooey from bloggers, pundits, the chattering class, and politicians from both sides of the aisle about who was really in charge — a neophyte Democratic President or the wiley batch of Generals backed by a behemoth and press-savvy Pentagon.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, goes before Congress this week, and with him comes this question: Who’s really in charge here, the generals or President Barack Obama?
“The president’s decision is already being softened and made mush of,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told POLITICO. And within the House and Senate Appropriations committees, senior Democrats – themselves veterans of past wars – have grown increasingly concerned by the political clout of a generation of younger, often press-savvy military commanders.
“I’ve always believed that the president of the United States is the commander in chief,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who was awarded the Medal of Honor in World War II. “It concerns me when I see my president, the commander in chief, having to debate with generals. They can do that privately, but he should be able to say to General A, ‘This is the way we’re going to do our business.’ … I would expect generals to advise the president but not to go public.”
“He’s got to be very, very much on top of the type of missions and the way in which these troops are deployed,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) told POLITICO. “It’s clear to me that there are limitations. We should not be going in, clearing and holding areas where we don’t have the ability to come in immediately with Afghans.”
“If we don’t, we’re going to be digging ourselves a hole,” he said. “[Obama] has to very careful not to allow that to happen.”
Some advance snips from Jonathan Alter’s new book The Promise, President Obama, Year One provide a riveting look inside the Obama War Room, and reveal a remarkably astute Commander-in-Chief who out-manueved, out-foxed, and decisively reigned in the military leadership intent on testing his mettle.
If these snips are any indication what the rest of Alter’s new book will be like, I’ll be waiting for it to hit shelves in the same way that some 10-year-olds awaited the final installment of the Harry Potter series. In the beginning (all emphasis mine):
The first of 10 “AFPAK” meetings came on Sept. 13, when the president gathered 16 advisers in the Situation Room in the basement of the White House. This was to be the most methodical national-security decision in a generation. Deputy national-security adviser Tom Donilon had commissioned research that backed up an astonishing historical truth: neither the Vietnam War nor the Iraq War featured any key meetings where all the issues and assumptions were discussed by policymakers. In both cases the United States was sucked into war inch by inch. The Obama administration was determined to change that. “For the past eight years, whatever the military asked for, they got,” Obama explained later. “My job was to slow things down.”
An informed and competent leader? That’s Change you can believe in, right there, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Obama’s approach in the meetings was the same as always. He was, according to one participant, “clear-eyed, hardheaded, and demanding.” More than once the president felt obliged to remind those briefing him that it wasn’t 2001 anymore.
Still, it seems the brass was happy to continue doing things as they always had.
The military, practiced in the ways of Washington, now ran PR circles around the neophytes in the Obama White House, leaking something to the Pentagon reporters nearly every day. The motive for all the leaks seemed clear to the White House: to box the president into the policy that McChrystal had recommended, at least another 80,000 troops and an open-ended commitment lasting 10 years or more.
Oh snap! No they di-int!
In the first week of October, Gates and Mullen were summoned to the Oval Office, where the president told them that he was “exceedingly unhappy” with the Pentagon’s conduct. He said the leaks and positioning in advance of a decision were “disrespectful of the process” and “damaging to the men and women in uniform and to the country.” In a cold fury Obama said he wanted to know “here and now” if the Pentagon would be on board with any presidential decision and could faithfully implement it.
“This was a cold and bracing meeting,” said an official in the room. Lyndon Johnson had never talked to Gen. William Westmoreland that way, or George H.W. Bush to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf. Presidents Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton had all been played by the Pentagon at various points but hadn’t fought back as directly. Now Obama was sending an unmistakable message: don’t toy with me. Just because he was young, new, a Democrat, and had never been in uniform didn’t mean he was going to get backed into a corner.
…and now, the stage has been set.
Nov. 11 Veterans Day meeting, the eighth on AfPak, would prove pivotal. “I don’t want to be going to Walter Reed for another eight years,” Obama told the group. That day the president gave preliminary approval to the plan presented to him by the military, which called for 40,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan over 21 months. But the timetable stuck in his craw. Already in a snappish mood, he found it appalling that in the world of modern military transport it would take nearly two years to get those boots on the ground. In the Gulf War in 1990-91, the military got half a million troops to the region in less than six months.
“I don’t know how we can describe this as a surge,” Obama said sharply. The president then turned to Petraeus. “Am I mistaken in remembering that the 30,000 troops in Iraq arrived in a six-month window in 2007?”
“No,” Petraeus said, “you’re not.” The president was treading in a sensitive area. “Any time Iraq was mentioned it was like putting a hot rod under Petraeus. He would practically levitate,” said one person in the room. Obama bore in: “So why is this surge taking place over 21 months if that one was done in six months?”
Petraeus replied that the Afghanistan surge was not modeled on Iraq. “Well, your presentation earlier was on Iraq,” Obama reminded him.
During the campaign, then running-mate biden famously warned Obama supporters to ‘gird their loins’, for this President would be tested. Biden was referring to a manufactured international crisis at the time, but one wonders if he didn’t also expect some degree of interference from the establishment.
As they walked along the portico toward the Oval Office, Biden asked if the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order that couldn’t be countermanded by the military. Obama said yes. The president didn’t need the reminder. Obama had already learned something about leaving no room for ambiguity with the military. He would often summarize his own meetings in a purposeful, clear style by saying, “Let me tell you where I am,” before enumerating points (“One, two, three”) and finishing with, “And that’s my order.”
While the brass tried to box Obama in, it soon became clear to all involved that it was the President who would be doing all the boxing.
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”
“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.
“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”
“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.
“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.
The president was crisp but informal. “Bob, you have any problems?” he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.
The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.
“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.
“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.
“Ditto,” Petraeus said.
When he spoke to McChrystal by teleconference, Obama couldn’t have been clearer in his instructions. “Do not occupy what you cannot transfer,” the president ordered. In a later call he said it again: “Do not occupy what you cannot transfer.” He didn’t want the United States moving into a section of the country unless it was to prepare for transferring security responsibilities to the Afghans. The troops should dig wells and pass out seeds and all the other development ideas they had talked about for months, but if he learned that U.S. soldiers had been camped in a town without any timetable for transfer of authority he wasn’t going to be happy.
Obama turned the tables, as Alter notes:
If, after 18 months, the situation in Afghanistan had stabilized as he expected, then troops could begin to come home. If conditions didn’t stabilize enough to begin an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces (or if they deteriorated further), that would undermine the Pentagon’s belief in the effectiveness of more troops. The commanders couldn’t say they didn’t have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did.
Who’s in a damned box now? Biden wanted heads to roll, and seems to have nothing but confidence in the President’s leadership.
At the conclusion of an interview in his West Wing office, Biden was adamant. “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it,” Biden said as he wheeled to leave the room, late for lunch with the president. He turned at the door and said once more, “Bet. On. It.”
What to make of all the constant talk that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is some kind of uber-bully puppet master behind the throne? Well, not so much:
Greg Sargent reports on a portion of the Newsweek columnist’s book detailing a conversation between Obama, Emanuel, and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs over health care reform in 2009. Emanuel reportedly begged the President not to pursue reform at the time:
At a subsequent meeting in the Oval Office on September 1st, the book reports, Robert Gibbs cracked a joke about bad poll numbers on health care.
“This is about whether we’re going to get big things done,” Obama said. “I wasn’t sent here to do school uniforms.”
Rahm then asked Obama if he still felt lucky.
“My name is Barack Hussein Obama and I’m sitting here,” Obama answered. “So yeah, I’m feeling pretty lucky.”
Go ahead, make his day. Say what you will about the policies, about the decisions, but make no mistake: President Obama is in charge.