THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 22, 2009
Michael "Mission Creep Watch" Cohen takes issue with my last print piece, which foreshadowed the growing tension between the White House and some Pentagon officials over Afghanistan troop levels. Whereas I warned the Obama team against the temptation of setting an ambitious mission while limiting painful troop increases--much as George W. Bush did in Iraq prior to the 2007 surge--Cohen warns against the knee-jerk troop demands of generals and the insidious pressure they can can apply on the president:
Via a policy of selective leaking to prominent media outlets, the military has further constrained the President's options, by making this entire debate one about more troops vs. less troops, rather than the current counter-insurgency strategy vs. a different one.
The notion, expressed in Crowley's piece, that "there is pressure being brought on generals" by the White House has it precisely backwards. Looking at the situation over the past five months, it is the military that is putting pressure on the WH for more troops!...
It's the job of politicians to balance politics and strategy. It's the job of the military to give advice, but then follow orders and fight wars. But these days it feels like the nation's generals are not only making strategic decisions, but trying to force the hand of our elected leaders.
Fair enough. I do think the White House has applied obvious pressure of its own for some months, notably through Jim Jones's famous "WTF" visit to Afghanistan in July. That said, this game is clearly being played both ways. And in the roughly two weeks since I finished my piece, the Pentagon has definitely played it more aggressively than the White House.
It's worth noting, by the way, that a young Democratic president with no military background is especially vulnerable to this kind of pressure from the military brass, which does make it all the more dodgy. The nightmare scenario is the early Clinton presidency, after gays in the military and the Somalia and Haiti debacles, a period when some military men were questioning the president's very legitimacy as commander in chief.