Turned Right, Crashed into Wall

Is national security taking a back seat to politics in Barack Obama’s decision to start the withdrawal in Afghanistan?

Jennifer Rubin, a token conservative columnist for the Washington Postasked that question earlier today over at the Right Turn, a blog about politics. The question, of course, was meant as a jibe. To get intellectual help, if that’s the word, she quoted an opinion piece by Max Boot.

But their argument, with national security presumably in the front seat, has hit a wall.

The context: on Sunday, The New York Times had published excerpts from David Sanger’s forthcoming book. The key passage: “by early 2011, Mr. Obama had seen enough. He told his staff to arrange a speedy, orderly exist from Afghanistan.” The Times then quoted an unnamed Obama adviser, “The military was ‘all in,’ as they say, and Obama wasn’t.”

“This is breathtaking,” Boot wrote in reaction,

This confirms the worst suspicions of Obama’s critics — namely that he was never committed to victory in Afghanistan and was instead committed to bringing troops home early so as to position himself advantageously for his own reelection. These revelations raise serious questions in my mind about the morality of the entire surge — about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice.

When I first read this I cringed. This deserves an angry response, I thought. But the arguments are just not serious enough to get angry. So let’s rather employ the Socratic method and ask four simple questions.

One on politics, just as a reminder: is strategy taking a back seat to politics? Isn’t that what we call democracy? But even in non-democracies that is the case, and classic military thought and strategic theory says it should be that way. You don’t think so? Read this book. Why would it be superior to defer decisions on extraordinarily costly long-term strategy to decision-makers who are not democratically elected (read: generals and admirals)?

That relates to a second question, on judgment. Boot and Rubin take issue with the president not following the advice of his generals to continue sending American soldiers into harm’s way to help bring about change in Afghanistan through counterinsurgency. So let’s focus on military judgment for a moment: being “all in” comes with a problem, the problem of sunk costs. The higher the costs and the longer it takes, the higher the likelihood that war, in Peter Paret’s words, may change “from a tool of policy to a force that imposes — or seeks to impose — its own emotional demands.” Why should those who paid the most terrible emotional price be in a better position to come to a sober judgment?

And that, in turn, leads to my third question, about the morality of risking troops’ lives and limbs for a goal that is not worthy of their sacrifice, in Boot’s words. Please, tell me, Why is it morally superior to send troops to get killed or injured for, say, three or four more years and then come to the same conclusion? But the strategy will work, you may say, just give it more time. Ok, then, what is the source of such certainty? Morality? Sunk costs? Bloody-mindedness?

So the last question, and it’s quite simple. Obama was “never committed to victory in Afghanistan,” we hear. What would have to happen in Afghanistan for you to call it victory? And what would have to happen for us to change our dear assumptions? Could you please spell that out, after a decade of war?

Many American hawks are staunch supporters of Israel, including Rubin and Boot. So perhaps they should take Israel’s experience with political violence a little more seriously. Victory, you must understand, is a concept that doesn’t really fly in the Holy Land. You don’t think so? Read this article.

Wars, let’s be clear, are fought not to be won, but to gain a political objective beyond war.


11 thoughts on “Turned Right, Crashed into Wall

  1. Tom Wein says:

    Leaving Afghanistan soonish is definitely my favoured policy option, so I don’t much mind in this case, and I tend to be fairly absolutist in defending civilian primacy, but I do think it is possible to preserve civilian primacy while also hoping that civilian leaders would try to separate the national interest from their own electoral interests. A faint hope, I know, but it would be nice if they did.

    • Quintin says:


      But what is that national interest if it does not reflect the will of the electorate? If the President, in his desire to be re-elected, makes a decision – and it is the wrong one, then democracy will take care of it, come election time. There will be a discrepancy between national and electoral (of an individual) interest. If not, the President would have made the right choice.

      At the heart of the matter lies a Boolean expression: the USA is either democratic, or it is not. If it is, then the process should be trusted. If not, the process should be changed.

  2. carl says:

    The early 2011 date got me to thinking. That was about the time were we closing in on and killing Osama. It got me to thinking too that both the military and the administration knew and know that the Pak Army/ISI is the critical entity in this conflict, yet neither has ever been very vocal about it nor willing to do anything real about it. And it has always been my opinion, based on nothing but the cogitations of a suspicious mind, that the Osama raid and killing was an inside job so to speak. The Pak Army/ISI knew we were coming and let us. So I wonder if the decision to leave made in 2011 was part of a deal, they give up Osama, we leave. Anyway I now expect everybody to write me off as a crackpot but I do wonder if a deal was made.

  3. L.Midavaine says:

    I think the most interesting objection you raise is the last one. How do we assess “victory”? I remember that the same question was mentioned in regards of potential Israeli strikes on Iran. I suppose it would be a point that is at the center of academic research as it seems to be a problem inherent to “Coin”.

  4. Cincinnatusjr says:

    While your point that politics always takes precedence over other issues, even something apparently trivial to our current Masters like national defense, is valid in the Clausewitzian sense, I think you miss the real issue where our current Masters (and some previous administrations as well have made this into an art form) put such things like national security in the van with partisan politics ALWAYS on point.

    I also think we should get out of Afghanistan as soon as practicable but that does not equate to giving our enemies a timetable in advance as He so recklessly did—again for partisan reasons more associated with placating the anti-war wing of His base.

    I also note your reference to “hawks” supporting Israel seems the tiniest bit perjorative in the context of your piece.

  5. Fj Rouse says:

    There are many in need of a lesson in common sense. Once again, an excellent post.


  6. Nathan Raye says:

    If an academic tries to have a Socratic dialogue alone in his office, does he make a sound?

  7. To answer the only question of importance: It appears that President Obama is making a strategic decision to serve a self-interest: Getting re-elected. The investment in blood and treasure is of no consequence to a leader who campaigns against a war, then continues the war even going so far to increase the nation’s investment in the war, and then withdrawing from the war to court those voters who supported his original campaign to withdraw from the war. Though convoluted this is a very simple sequence to follow.

    Now for the inconsequential: This opinion is authored by one who agrees with the original incursion into Afghanistan and Iraq to decapitate terrorist organizations and their supporters, but believes that “nation-building” is a fool’s errand.

  8. W4rlord says:

    People tend to think that our time is very different from previous ages. Well it is not. War is /was / will be a tool of politics. And politicians, who BTW make politics, like to be reelected. There are countless examples in military history listed in Regan’s Military Blunders where democratic states launched military campaigns totally devoid of military reason.

  9. Patrick says:

    For me, Obama lost a lot of his credibility on Afghanistan on 22 May, when he said that the war was ‘effectively over’. Cameron mirrored these sentiments. Tell that to the guys who die between now and it being ‘really over’.

  10. Pericles says:

    What is missed here by many commentators like Boot is that Obama did exactly what they all advised him to. In 2008 McChrystal barked and the President jumped, being already concerned over the Right’s criticism of his (entirely creditable) decision to withdraw promptly from Iraq. The Afghan surge occurred, all the magic wands of COIN were duly waved around, and both the surge and the COIN effort have since failed roundly to defeat the Taliban, who remain an indigenous and politically potent Afghan phenomenon, despite the hundreds of night time raids, covert assassinations, and relentless drone strikes. It would be nice if the Max Boots, Michael O’Hanlons and other right wing war jockeys of this world were held up to account a little more often over their hollow, shallow, and dangerous analyses, which have prolonged a war and increased casualties on both sides to no discernible strategic purpose.
    To me the analysis that really needs to be done is who replaces Karzai post-2014. There is a deathly silence around this question because everybody knows the alternatives are either politically impotent or (in terms of general corruption) even worse.

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