Foreign Policy Blogs

President Obama on Afghanistan: Cold Calculation or Measured Response?

Peter Feaver of Shadow Government has penned (keyboarded?) a provocative analysis of coming dilemma facing President Obama and his forthcoming Afghan war decision. Feaver first recalls the candidate Obama’s rhetoric on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, reminding us all how hawkish the future president sounded on Afghanistan. Feaver than discusses how some things have changed and how others have stayed the same:

As president, Obama has kept up the campaign critique of his predecessor even as he has kept most of the war-related policies that President Bush pursued in his second term. Across the board from the legal framework for the broader war on terror, to the phased Status of Forces Agreement — dictated withdrawal from Iraq, to the surge in Afghanistan President Obama has largely followed the trajectory President Bush’s strategies anticipated.

Where Obama has diverged from the Bush trajectory, it has almost always been in the same direction, towards reducing the wars’ footprint on Obama’s governing agenda. He has followed Bush’s Iraq policy, but at a hands-off distance. He delegated Iraq policy down to the vice president and limited the administration’s involvement in helping Iraqi political leaders deal with their post-election paralysis. He authorized the surge in Afghanistan that Bush’s 2008 strategy review recommended, but he imposed an artificial withdrawal timeline and tried to convince his base that the timeline meant the war would be ended rapidly, regardless of progress in the battle or other facts on the ground.

Most noticeably, President Obama has dramatically reduced the prominence of the wars in the administration’s rhetoric and, consequently, in the public debate. To be sure, the wars do produce headlines, sometimes because of barely-foiled attempted terrorist attacks, sometimes because internal debates from within Obama’s fractious national security team bubble to the surface with dramatic leaks. But in sharp contrast with his predecessor, the administration does not appear to be trying to drive the public narrative on the war. Or rather, the administration’s strategy appears to be to drive the public narrative underground.

Feaver’s final point, concerning President Obama’s near silence on the Afghan war, is point much belabored on this blog. Feaver goes on to provide his guess as to why this quiet approach is taken:

There is a cold political calculation behind this strategy. Obama has pursued a largely partisan strategy in governing overall, ramming through his most important domestic policy achievements on straight party-line votes. However, his national security policies are only kept afloat by bipartisanship. Indeed, Republicans have been his most stalwart supporters on virtually every war-related issue. Obama’s most ardent political supporters are the most fervent opponents of his war policies. Obama’s political advisors, who played an unusually large role in setting war policies, evidently have calculated that the less Obama talks about the war, the less this contradiction is exacerbated.

The coming year will put this political calculation to the test.

The test is indeed very near the horizon as 2011, which holds the announced beginning withdrawal date of July 2011, is just days away. Finally, Feaver offers the possible consequences of both President Obama choosing to dramatically drawdown the US military presence in Afghanistan or stick to NATO’s new 2014 withdrawal/handoff date:

Come August, the contradictions in White House messaging about the Afghanistan timeline will be unspinnable. Either the timeline will start a rapid rush to the exit as the left base wants or it will be the gradual, conditions-based withdrawal inching towards a distant 2014 deadline (followed by a long-term strategic partnership) that General Petraeus and moderates in the war cabinet have indicated.

If Obama opts for the former, then Republican support for the war will likely quickly diminish. People who supported a war they thought they could win will not want to be caught as the last one supporting a losing effort. If Obama opts for the latter, then any remaining left-leaning props undergirding public support for the Afghanistan war will likely collapse altogether. The timeline straddle bought muted Democratic criticism, but the mutes will be off once the straddle is abandoned.

At that point, President Obama will need to explain to the American people why we are in the war and why additional sacrifice is worth bearing. But at least one significant constituency, his base, will be in no mood to hear him out.

As I have argued before, the American populace does not seem to hold the US military presence in Afghanistan at the top of concern list, even for Obama’s leftwing base, and I don’t see this changing substantively by 2012, which if I recall correctly will hold a certain American presidential election. This does not mean it won’t affect American voters opinions, but I don’t think it will be a game changer. Those on the American Left know that Barack Obama is probably the most liberal person their ever going to get to sit in the White House and will not abandon him over Afghanistan. On the other hand, most conservatives and Republicans will not be giving him their vote no matter what policy he follows in Afghanistan. I foresee President Obama mostly adhering to the NATO 2014 handoff date with a small, but not insignificant number of troops headed home soon after July, 2011 passes.

Feaver’s article left much to be debated and discussed so please give it a gander and comment below.