Barack Obama, a president with no prior military experience, has so far cowered in the presence of the military and U.S. defense establishment. The most recent example is the passing-over of Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright to take over the job of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the number-one military man in America. Cartwright was Obama’s favorite general because he disagreed with a troop surge in Afghanistan to remodel that country in a frenzy of nation-building. Cartwright had direct input to the president and was trying to come up with options other than the full-blown counterinsurgency surge, to which the defense establishment was trying restrict the chief executive.
Cartwright, Vice President Joe Biden, and members of the White House staff were pushing back against the military’s attempt to portray the only real option as the addition of 40,000 troops—advocating a more limited counterterrorism approach that required many fewer forces to target al-Qaeda, the long-neglected original purpose of the “war on terror.” During the president’s recent remarks nominating Gen. Martin E. Dempsey for the position of chairman that Vice Chairman Cartwright seemed in line to get, Obama pointedly said he expected Dempsey and the other Joint Chiefs of Staff to provide him a “full range of options.” In Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars, Obama was portrayed as peeved at being given only one viable alternative for Afghanistan—the defense establishment’s preference for a maximum troop surge.
Yet continuing to yield to pressure from that same establishment, headed by the lame ducks Mullen and Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, and passing over the independent-thinking Cartwright, makes it unlikely that the military will be prodded into providing meaningful options for beginning a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has been promised by the president for July 2011.
Now would be the time for Obama to take advantage of the successful targeting of Osama bin Laden as an excuse for a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet the U.S. defense establishment is hoping that the Taliban will be intimidated by the death of bin Laden to reach a negotiated settlement with the United States. This outcome is unlikely because the Taliban knows that pressure is building among Democrats and even some Republicans for a faster draw-down, given bin Laden’s death and the yawning federal budget deficits and rapidly growing national debt.
Obama needs to follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s example of not being bullied by his generals and avoid Abraham Lincoln’s bad example of being so intimidated by “experts.” Neither FDR nor Lincoln had had much military experience, but FDR was much better at managing the military than Lincoln. Perhaps because he had served in the defense bureaucracy as a civilian assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR picked generals based on competence, generally let them do their jobs, but wasn’t scared to exert civilian control if that was required.
Contrary to the myth that the now-canonized Lincoln single-handedly held the Union together despite the foibles of the North’s slew of incompetent generals, the reality was much different. Lincoln constantly appointed generals for political reasons rather than for military competence (for example, he appointed the bungling Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union’s largest and most important force, just because he knew Hooker was no threat to run against him for president); kept such inept commanders far too long; and realized early in the war that the key to putting down the southern rebellion was destroying the Confederate army—not taking geographical points on the map—but was cowed by his scant military experience (he was in the Illinois militia for only a brief period) from ordering his military commanders to do so.
So far, Obama seems resentful that the military, which has much prestige with the American public and Congress, is trying to restrict his options, but is letting nervousness about his lack of military experience limit his pushback. He must not accept any military suggestion that a slow draw-down from Afghanistan—for example, the current date for a complete withdrawal is 2014—is the only viable option.