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December 05, 2009


Eric Chen


Withdrawn - 2nd point of evidence: "Therefore, given their deployment date, it simply is impossible for the 20K troop deployment to have started after President Obama took office."

The memory plays tricks. Upon review, I realized I made an error by confusing times of requests (Feb/March) for the 20+K increase with the times of deployments. Otherwise, I believe the evidence upholds that President Obama initially continued the COIN-based plans, already in motion, President Bush handed off to him. (Before leaving office, Bush put in for a 9K deployment based on the new COIN-based OEF strategy.) Then, when Obama later conducted his own belated change-of-command strategic review of OEF, he found "no silver bullets", circled the block and reached a conclusion substantively the same as the revised Afghanistan strategy he inherited from President Bush.

Also, I omitted OEF/OIF "war czar" LTG Doug Lute as another key member of Bush's war team whom Obama retained on his war team for continuity. Lute, notably, was in charge of conducting Bush's final Afghanistan review.

Eric Chen

Oops, the last paragraph is supposed to read: In short, you, I and President Obama may recognize that there is no absolute time limit to the mission, but the ultimate result of the mission does not depend on you, me and the president.

PPS: I'm always glad to hear about my fellow Columbia milvets making a difference on campus, but it doesn't change that Columbia in my experience is behind the curve on COIN. Should SIPA choose to take on COIN, your exceptional ready access to Ivy League pedigreed war veterans, enlisted and commissioned, on campus would be an asset.

Eric Chen


"More importantly, Defense Secretary Gates and his colleagues were quite clear in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the withdrawal deadline was not written in stone but subject to the conditions on the ground."

Me, I shrugged when Republicans criticized the supposed time limit. It didn't bother me since an absolute time limit is unrealistic. However, on balance, it would have been better for President Obama to follow President Bush's lead and emphasize the 'conditions on the ground' aspect for public consumption. (Though, if Obama needed to state a time limit for a practical reason, such as to secure funding, then that changes the calculation.) While I believe serious educated observers such as enemy leaders, Afghan government officials, and political scientists will know the difference, we also need to win over casual observers and the confidence of cost/benefit-analysing American soldiers and Afghanis deciding whether to risk their lives - or not - based on their trust of the American president.

For example, I work with a 'salt dog' Marine reservist who's served twice in Iraq. The 2nd time, he volunteered for the "Surge" and now he's considering volunteering for Afghanistan. He's the kind of serious, experienced, smart Marine the OEF 'surge' needs. However, he understands that 18 months is insufficient to do this job and the president's speech discouraged him. It's one thing for him and me to speculate in the office what's realistic and what's not, but he needs to hear the commitment from the President before deciding the mission is worth risking his life - again. It's only one example, but does my co-worker's reaction represent the reaction of other US servicemen and women to Obama's speech? What about the Afghanis being asked to make a life-or-death decision in picking sides?

In short, you, I and President Obama may recognize that there is no absolute time limit to the mission, but the ultimate result of the mission does not

Eric Chen

Professor Nacos,

I disagree. The early 20K troop increase was based on changes to the Afghanistan mission developed at the end of the Bush administration. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/11/21/AR2008112103504.html , just one of many news stories that discussed this at the time. Excerpt: "Empowering Afghans to secure and govern their own country is expected to be a main theme of a Bush administration review of Afghanistan strategy that is expected to be released soon."

I don't have Bob Woodward access to know for sure, but I think it's clear on the available evidence that there has been substantial continuity between Presidents Bush and Obama on Afghanistan.

First, the media indicates that the Afghanistan strategy change and troop deployments were being developed at the end of the Bush admin. Second, more telling as a practical matter, a large-scale troop deployment to a war zone unavoidably requires months to plan and prepare; President Obama even referred to the lead-time issue in his West Point speech, eg, the 2010 deployment reality. Therefore, given their deployment date, it simply is impossible for the 20K troop deployment to have started after President Obama took office. However, you are correct that as the president at actual time of deployment, it still required Obama's permission. Third, COIN was and still is opposed in many influential circles, which means the switch to COIN in Afghanistan could only have followed upon COIN definitively proven in Iraq, and COIN only became a settled issue by the end of the Bush admin. At that time, per accounts, the Bush admin conducted its final Afghanistan policy review, incorporating COIN (note: GEN Petraeus assumed command of CentCom on 31Oct08), which became the basis for Obama's Afghanistan policy. More evidence: Obama's war team is Bush's war team - GEN Petraeus, SecDef Gates, JCS ADM Mullen - nearly intact, which points to one feature - continuity. Even more stark, President Obama is following the advice of the Bush holdovers on his war team over the advice of his own additions, NSA Jones and Ambassador Eikenberry, who both opposed an Afghanistan 'surge'.

Finally, many have wondered and you have discussed, why would President Obama need to do an extensive policy review and make his decision about Afghanistan now - after his March statement, 20+K troop deployments, and switching OEF commanders? Odd sequence, because Obama's early actions clearly indicated a settled policy on Afghanistan. The reasonable explanation for this seemingly backwards decision-making sequence is that Obama's early actions re Afghanistan, including the troop deployments, were based on plans already in motion. So, Obama didn't need to form the actions; he only had to cancel or approve them, and he approved them. Then, only after the Bush-inherited actions were completed did Obama conduct his own comprehensive review and take complete ownership of OEF with his West Point speech. (Note: while a comprehensive review normally is expected to be an early act in a change of command, in Obama's defense, I've heard his transition team was invited by Bush officials to work on Bush's final Afghanistan review, so Obama likely had input in Bush's final Afghanistan to-do list.)

"But as research has shown and the recent practice once again affirmed, there are limits to enlisting public support for military engagements abroad--especially in the face of real problems at home."

True, like his inauguration speech, President Obama's West Point speech in many respects was indistinguishable from President Bush's speeches, although I thought Obama did a better job of acknowledging concerns and opposing talking points.

Unlike what Bush faced, though, the Republicans - who will oppose him on many other issues - will not undermine him publicly when it comes to vigorously prosecuting the war, whereas the Democrats consistently undermined President Bush as commander in chief to the public. We can hope that the Democrats' public undermining of Bush was purely partisan, and with political control of Congress and the White House their reward, they will rally behind their man doing the same job.

The greater expectation rests on the man himself. President Obama is supposed to be a great, even global, 21st century media communicator and consensus builder, not to mention a bare-knuckles 'Chicago Way' politician. He even has a Nobel Peace prize based largely on those perceptions. In short, Obama is supposed to be the exception to the research. President Bush was a poor communicator in the media and often drowned out by his critics. With many of those critics neutralized, Obama is in a better position to sell his foreign policy against a domestic opposition that's been reduced mainly to 'paleo-con' realists, racists, isolationists, and leftists. But even in his superior position to Bush, Obama will still have to work very hard to fix the damage caused by himself and other Bush critics to the popular narrative. As I've said before on your blog, by opposing Bush, they have done great harm to liberalism. Hopefully, the liberal pundits who were unwilling to help President Bush uphold the liberal war effort to the public will now choose to help President Obama in the same cause ... he'll need the help, because Afghanistan is a lot harder than Iraq.

The effect of the economy on the war? A very good question for the political economists in SIPA, I think. I agree that President Bush had the luxury of a bullish economy (for which he famously told us to maintain our credit-fueled consumer habits after 9/11) with which to fund the mission, whereas President Obama must balance war costs with the recession and the outsized costs of his domestic initiatives.

Interesting question: given that Obama is willing to be a profligate spender with his non-war initiatives, eg bail-outs and stimulus, heath care, and possibly global warming, how does that support or hurt his war spending?



Just a quick response to your once again appreciated comment: Yes, it took Pres. Obama to make sure that more troops were deployed in Afghanistan soon after he took office.
More importantly, Defense Secretary Gates and his colleagues were quite clear in their testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the withdrawal deadline was not written in stone but subject to the conditions on the ground.
As for the going public imperative of presidents, both Bush and Obama tried pretty hard in this respect. But as research has shown and the recent practice once again affirmed, there are limits to enlisting public support for military engagements abroad--especially in the face of real problems at home.
As for Columbia and the large number of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I have several outstanding, young veterans in my current class and assure you that they greatly enrich our class discussions and are appreciated by their peers and, most of all, by their instructor.

Eric Chen

Professor Nacos,

To be fair, the early 20K troop increase was authorized under President Bush, although President Obama certainly could have stopped it if he disagreed with it.

The Republicans did criticize the 18 month limit, but it was a mild criticism, certainly compared to what the Democrats did to Bush, and they mixed their criticism with praise for the greater decision. Realistically, there is no more an absolute deadline for Obama's OEF 'surge' than there was an unlimited escalation in Bush's OIF "Surge". COIN is meant to effect conditions such that local actors, such as in the Anbar Awakening, will make independent rational choices that serve our interests. So, just because 18 months happened to turn out to be a working timeframe in Iraq doesn't mean it will be the magic figure for an Afghanistan turnaround. In many wars, variants of "home by Christmas" have routinely been predicted and rarely with accuracy; as in Iraq, conditions on the ground in Afghanistan and our own limits will dictate what we actually do when the time comes to do it.

The main difference I see between Bush and Obama as War on Terror presidents, which the Republican critics did not say, is that Bush's commitment to the mission allowed for a change to Plan B when Plan A failed, or even change to Plan D after Plans A to C failed. Without that kind of apolitical leadership from President Bush, for which the Republicans paid a high political price, there would have been no (very controversial at the time) COIN "Surge" in Iraq. However, President Obama, while embracing the COIN strategy he inherited from President Bush, gives less indication he shares Bush's willingness to sacrifice his political cache by responding to a future failure with a change in strategy as opposed to a Nixonian surrender.

"Why not telling the American people that he was wrong in predicting that the Iraq surge would not work?"

I agree. I commented on your blog in
http://www.reflectivepundit.com/reflectivepundit/2009/09/what-endgame-in-afghanistan.html?cid=6a00d8341ca8e553ef0120a630affd970c#comment-6a00d8341ca8e553ef0120a630affd970c :

"What's called neo-conservatism is just the progressive (interventionalist) liberalism of Wilson, FDR, and Truman, renamed. The bashing of neo-conservatism by self-described Western liberals, therefore, has led to the frustrating, self-defeating spectacle of influential people speaking liberal platitudes but quixotically opposing our definitively liberal strategy in the War on Terror. The effect of these liberals' tragic hypocrisy has been the degradation of the Western liberalizing influence on the illiberal regions of the world."

By the same token, an equally damaging effect of the attacks by self-described liberals on our liberal strategy has been the degradation within Western societies of the domestic understanding and support we need to adequately sustain the war/peace-building strategy endorsed by Presidents Bush and Obama. Therefore, a critical task of President Obama is to fix the deep damage done to his and Bush's foreign policy goals by Senator/Candidate Obama and other Bush critics.

For example, watching the CNN reaction segment after Obama's USMA speech I noted that CNN used zero COIN experts - although to be fair, they had some reporters (eg, Michael Ware) and commentators (eg, Fareed Zakaria) who at least had some relevant subject matter knowledge. But the segment was dominated by partisan political pundits who were remarkably ignorant about COIN and area 'country study' knowledge. Worse, they didn't seem to care about the Afghanistan mission beyond its effect on the GOP and Dem partisan contest at home.

Obama needs to convey both his unity with President Bush (as Bush did with Clinton re Iraq) and that the War on Terror is no more his and the Democrats' war than it was Bush and the Republicans' war. Rather, he needs to show us that the War on Terror is America's war and greater, it is the Western liberal world order's war. I suggest that the president ought to dedicate himself to changing the entire frame of the dialogue in the way FDR unified America for our WWII intervention despite, at the time, strong domestic anti-Wilsonian sentiment not to intervene again in a European war.

One concrete step I advise President Obama take is persistent education in the media about the War on Terror, like FDR's radio chats, in a manner that treats Americans as intelligent people who will support the mission when we learn what he and President Bush know.

To augment his personal efforts, the president ought to enlist COIN and country experts to educate the American public and by expansion, the Western public, about the mission.

More locally, you, as a concerned citizen, media expert, and political science professor at a globally important university that just happens to have the highest population of student-veterans in the Ivy League, can bring COIN experts into academia and the media as well. (With all due to respect to Professor Betts and the Saltzman Institute, I didn't get the impression as a Columbia poli sci major that we were on the leading academic edge of the COIN phenomenon.)

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