President Barack Obama inherited a difficult national security situation — wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; an exaggerated and counterproductive war on terror; debilitating deficits and rising debt; an obstructionist Congress; and a corporate media that has abandoned its watchdog ethos.
Unfortunately, President Obama did not have the experience to manage this daunting challenge. He had scant background in foreign policy, military policy or defense expenditures. Nor did he have much knowledge about the major players in these fields.
Note: This is Part III of a series by former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman addressing the presidency and the Pentagon.
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Part I examined what President Dwight Eisenhower knew about the military as a retired five-star general and what he tried to impart to his successors. Part II looked at President Obama’s challenges. Part III focuses on how Obama has failed to meet those tests
As a result of these shortcomings, the President assembled a team for most of the wrong reasons. He made his two major national security appointments for domestic political reasons.
Hillary Clinton was made secretary of state to build bridges to her wing of the Democratic Party following a nasty political campaign and to head off any Clinton reprisals. George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates was retained as a sop to “bipartisanship” and to conservative Republicans.
The Gates appointment was particularly damaging because it demonstrated deference to the Pentagon’s power structure and acceptance of Gates’s continued authority. When Obama wanted to place the reform-minded Richard Danzig in as deputy defense secretary, Gates blocked the move, showing his continued clout and dashing hopes of some Democrats that he would serve only as a temporary bridge from the Bush administration.
Instead, Gates and another Bush favorite, General David Petraeus, have emerged as the leading voices on national security policy. Their strength is magnified by the weakness and disunity of other senior officials on Obama’s national security team.
For instance, Official Washington and the corporate media have hailed Obama’s choice of Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal as commander in charge of the Afghan War. Yet, this move also has increased the power of the Pentagon to override any deadline for troop withdrawal from the nation’s longest war.
Neither Petraeus nor his bosses (Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen) have accepted Obama’s notion of a deadline to begin significant withdrawals of U.S. troops next summer. McChrystal’s contemptuous remarks in Rolling Stone exposed an even deeper strain of resistance to the civilian government at the highest levels of the uniformed military.
This insubordination should have been addressed in October 2009 when McChrystal challenged Afghan policy while a decision on additional troops was still being debated at the White House. Now, given the messy circumstances of McChrystal’s firing, Petraeus is virtually untouchable.
To make matters worse, President Obama has exempted the military budget from the fiscal restraint being applied to other parts of the federal government. The $708 billion defense budget for 2011 is higher than at any point in post-World War II history, says Gordon Adams of American University.
No End in Sight
The new emphasis on counterinsurgency, counterterrorism and so-called “stability operations,” which the corporate media terms a “reform,” will create opportunities for new military deployments overseas. There is no end in sight to this spending, unless the Obama administration finds a new toughness to freeze the defense budget, stop force expansion, and set genuine procurement priorities.
Instead of the needed firmness, President Obama has contributed to the militarization of overall national security policy by appointing general officers to key positions that should have been in the hands of civilians. These appointments include the national security adviser; the intelligence tsar (first a retired admiral and, more recently, a retired general); ambassadors to such key states as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; and a mediator for Sudan.
All of these generals and admirals have had difficulty dealing with the foreign policy bureaucracy, and there are rumors that two of them (National Security Adviser James Jones and Ambassador to Afghanistan Kurt Eikenberry) are on the way out.
Meanwhile, there has been no attempt to reverse the militarization of the intelligence community, which includes the Pentagon’s near total control over the intelligence budget and personnel.
The State Department should be the major counter to the Defense Department, but Foggy Bottom has not had a strong leader since James Baker was the steward for foreign policy two decades ago. The department has been in decline ever since, particularly during the last five years under Condoleeza Rice and now Hillary Clinton.
Rice had contempt for the Foreign Service; Clinton talks a much better game but has surrounded herself with congressional and personal aides who have little knowledge of foreign policy and little political clout in the administration.
President Obama’s appointment of three so-called “tsars” for such important issues as the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan-Pakistan also demonstrated a lack of confidence in Clinton and her department. Further, the appointments created an unnecessary bureaucratic layer that has confused foreign leaders and contributed to a sclerotic foreign policy.
It is hard to recall a time when the National Security Council was weaker than it is today. The NSC hasn’t even functioned as an umpire in disputes between State and Defense or between the key intelligence agencies that have been in turmoil since the so-called reorganization in 2004.
General Jones has been a weak national security adviser, ignoring the important public role of the position and failing to organize the bureaucracy. As a result, on key matters dealing with Afghanistan and Israel, the administration has spoken with several voices.
Defense Secretary Gates even lectured Jones in a sensitive letter about the failure to develop sufficient strategies and policies for dealing with Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Last year, North Korea invited former President Clinton to Pyongyang to settle a major diplomatic dispute, an obvious signal of interest in bilateral diplomacy, but Jones made no attempt to engage the foreign policy bureaucracy in a discussion about this opportunity.
Intelligence in Turmoil
The intelligence community is in particular turmoil and no longer serves as a check and balance to the primacy of the Pentagon. Jones has allowed delays in the publication of an important update to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program, creating a vacuum for the administration’s hawks to engage in strong rhetoric about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions that may not be backed up by the intelligence analysis.
This situation opens the door to a return to politicized intelligence, as analysts grow fearful of contradicting the dire claims made by senior officials. Instead of intelligence analysis informing policy, the danger is that policymakers will stake out positions and then expect the analysts to fall into line.
Inside the CIA, the appointment of a weak CIA director, Leon Panetta, has left in place many of the operational ideologues who were responsible for secret prisons, abusive interrogations, torture and renditions. Obama has contributed to a continuation of the old ways by failing to appoint a statutory Inspector General, a position that has been vacant for nearly his entire first term.
President Obama will likely lack a handle on this deteriorating national security situation until he realizes that Afghanistan is not central to the terrorism threat against the United States and that the stability of Pakistan is far more important to U.S. security in South and Southwest Asia.
Sending more troops and resources into Afghanistan does not begin to address the threat of international terrorism, and no amount of economic assistance to Pakistan will buy support from Islamabad.
In 1987, the new Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan a “bleeding wound” and began the process of withdrawal. However, in 2010, since General McChrystal called Afghanistan a “bleeding wound,” there has been no sign of a U.S. withdrawal strategy. Instead, General Petraeus is once again brandishing the notion of victory.
Until there is some indication that President Obama can stand up to the Pentagon and the Congress (and to some extent, the corporate media) on issues such as Afghanistan, defense spending, and homeland security, the serious domestic needs of the country will continue to go wanting and the United States will become increasingly isolated in the world.
Finally, the president must understand the wisdom of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who “strongly believed that the United States — indeed, any nation — could only be as militarily strong as it was economically dynamic and fiscally sound.”
Instead, the United States has developed a garrison mentality – and has become economically stagnant and strategically insolvent. Until President Obama recognizes the need for military restraint, the United States will continue to blunder unilaterally into unnecessary confrontations.
He needs to learn from his presidential hero, Abraham Lincoln, who understood when conflicts were essential for the nation’s survival and when they weren’t. Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico from 1846-48, but called the Civil War — the fight to save the Union — an “issue which can only be tried by war and decided by victory.”
The war in Afghanistan is not that kind of war. Indeed, American use of force since the end of the Cold War has served only to weaken the nation, draining resources and costing the lives of far too many fighting men and women.
One would hope that Obama has learned from the McChrystal affair that he needs to shake up his national security team – and his own thinking.
Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA.