Obama Is No Superman

by , June 22, 2010

As the ecology in the Gulf circles the sticky tar drain of evolution, and countless livelihoods spanning at least four states going down with it, Americans are wondering where their Superman is. The disappointment that President Barack Obama seems stuck in the phone booth, still deciding whether to get his suit on, is nothing new. Those of us hoping for similar action in Afghanistan have been waiting for more than a year.

Turns out that Obama doesn’t really do bold and heroic – it’s not his style – and he certainly doesn’t come off as decisive, unless he’s pushed. Where George Bush was “the decider,” Obama seems to lead by committee, and not the kind of committee that gets things done. He takes too much time, and then when he does make a move, it always seems designed to please competing political constituencies while delaying the big blows for later. He did this with health care reform, an expensive hodgepodge of remedies no one was entirely excited about. He did this early this year in Afghanistan, increasing the troop levels, but by half of what the hawks had demanded. He finally set a withdrawal date of July 2011, which pleased the doves, but it came with fungible “conditions” and was still nearly two years away.

Now, after numerous “assessments,” strategy “briefings,” and goal recalibrations, we are now being told that December is the next non-benchmark in which the president will “evaluate” the progress of the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. This pseudo D-Day – as all of these non-benchmarks have become – will supposedly guide whether the military will be able to start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan at the established timeline.

It all evokes this strange passivity on the part of the commander in chief and the sinking feeling of déjà vu all over again. Last year at this time, while another review was in progress, the U.S. was about to invade Helmand province in what was called the biggest air insertion of Marines since the Vietnam War.

“Thousands of U.S. Marines stormed into an Afghan river valley by helicopter and land early today, launching the biggest military offensive of Barack Obama’s presidency with an assault deep into Taliban territory.

“In swiftly seizing the valley, commanders hope to accomplish within hours what NATO troops had failed to achieve over several years, and by doing so turn the tide of a stale-mated war in time for an Afghan presidential election on August 20. “‘Where we go we will stay, and where we stay, we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces,’ Marine Corps Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in southern Afghanistan said in a statement.”

Sound familiar? From the AP this February:

“Helicopter-borne U.S. Marines and Afghan troops swooped down on the Taliban-held town of Marjah before dawn Saturday, launching a long-expected attack to re-establish government control and undermine support for militants in their southern heartland.

“The assault on Marjah is the biggest offensive since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and will serve as a major test of a new NATO strategy focusing on protecting civilians. The attack is also the first major combat operation since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. reinforcements here in December to try to turn the tide of the war.”

As the Helmand “insertion” was supposed to be a “game changer” ahead of the Afghan presidential elections, Marjah was supposed to lay the groundwork for the pending counter-insurgency operation in neighboring Kandahar, a much bigger, much more complicated thicket of problems.

But Helmand wasn’t a game changer, nor the public-relations spectacular the administration had hoped for. The 2009 elections were largely considered a farce, and President Hamid Karzai, by winning reelection largely through massive voter fraud, has failed to gain any legitimacy with the people outside of Kabul.

As for Marjah, it’s fallen far short of expectations. Consequently, Kandahar has already been downgraded from an operation to a “process.”

Through it all, Obama seems resigned to use an endless stream of assessments and reviews as cover for his reluctance – or outright inability – to take more decisive action. The last big year-end review resulted in giving Gen. Stanley McChrystal pretty much what he wanted, an escalation in troops. Of course the “soft” 2011 timeline hasn’t gone over well with everyone, but it’s clear now that McChrystal can “finesse” it if we wants to. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has already started. So, after months of buildup, Obama’s December 2009 West Point speech was sadly anti-climactic and had the uncanny feel of forestalling the inevitable. But the inevitable what – endless occupation or withdrawal?

Meanwhile, we have felt the president become more aloof, more detached from the policy. While titillating insider pieces began suggesting a real struggle between the counter-insurgency crowd and so-called realists in the White House, all it seems to suggest now is that no one agrees on what the president meant by the timeline – a debate that was even evident in the recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearings.

But back to December. What will this latest briefing tell the president that he cannot figure out already on his own? Probably nothing, but we can probably guess with some assurance that it will make the current situation on the ground so uncertain that the July 11 withdrawal date will look more like a noose than an exit sign.

I cannot predict what McChrystal will say, but I can already sense the spin. An echo of a drumbeat, percolating first at the Center for a New American Security conference on June 10, indicates that the Long War crowd – the COINdinistas, the hawks from the last administration, and the military itself – will do their best to undermine that timeline, as they are already blaming it on current and future failures in the field.

Anthony Cordesman, who served on McChrystal’s last assessment team and supported the current COIN strategy, had this to say in a June white paper on the subject:

“One thing is clear: The war will be lost if 2011 is treated as a deadline, and/or if the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and the Afghan people, the Pakistani government and people, and our allies perceive it as a deadline. The same will be true if the timing of the campaign, and the impact of U.S. and allied actions, are defined in terms of unrealistic expectations. No amount of planning, discussion, and analysis can set clear deadlines for this war.

“The current situation is the product of more than eight years of chronic under-resourcing, under-reaction, spin, self-delusion, and neglect. It is the result of one of the worst examples of wartime leadership in American history. There is no magic route out of this situation, and the timing of an effective campaign has been complicated by a wide range of factors….”

What he is saying – and what a growing number of people in the national security establishment here in the Beltway are echoing – is while political and operational events on the ground have overtaken COIN’s lofty goals, the U.S. should (a) move the goal posts for success one more time and (b) increase resources and hang in there longer to get the job done.

“ISAF has shown considerable realism in adjusting its campaign plans to these facts, but they could still cost the U.S. and its allies the war if a major shift does not take place from the present climate of ‘over-promise and under-perform’ to an acceptance that deadlines do more to undercut support than to motivate, that plans must reflect real world time scales and realistic expectations and goals, and that credibility and leadership depend on ‘under-promising and over-performing’….

“No one can guarantee victory even in the form of the end state described earlier. One can guarantee that it is better to have a credible chance of victory in 2012-2013 than it is to rush to defeat in 2010-2011.”

Not surprisingly, the president – who many would argue is partly responsible for the disgraceful “wartime leadership” Cordesman referred to in his paper – has spent little time during these review periods listening to anyone but this bully echo-chamber. If he had otherwise, he would have heard people like retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, who says any more time in Afghanistan is a waste of precious lives and resources; Georgetown University’s Paul Pillar, who recently had the temerity to suggest that “the presence of the U.S. in the theater … has continued to be a stimulus for radicalism”; and realists like Andrew Bacevich, who made the case back in December 2008 to get out of Afghanistan and has been right on every point about the fallacy of the Petraeus Doctrine.

But maybe that’s not the point.

Perhaps distracted by the recent catastrophic events on the homefront, Americans don’t realize that Obama has largely turned the war in Afghanistan over to Generals Petraeus and McChrystal for a purpose. “Assessing” the strategy and the “situation on the ground” gives the outward appearance of White House oversight, but these repeated reviews are beginning to seem like an elaborate stalling tactic. A very politically astute one.

Being set up by people like Cordesman and other military surrogates in the media, Obama may indeed hear his “generals on the ground” in December and decide the 2011 withdrawal date has to be pushed back. Maybe he can do this through the next presidential election – his reelection – without taking dramatic action either way. He certainly doesn’t want to withdraw and reinforce the whole “defeat-o-crat” meme. And if something terrible happens in the meantime, he can always blame the generals and their vaunted COIN strategy, which most of the defense establishment – including the Republicans – signed onto with vigor two years ago. So he is not a superman after all – but a super politician. He’s been emotionally “detached” because it’s all about one person: Barack Obama.

In the word of the indomitable “Dirty” Harry Callahan, an American hero in his own right: “marvelous.”

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos