The Cable

Reactions to Obama's VFW speech

By Peter Feaver

President Obama spoke to the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention today. Over the last 8 years, this and the related American Legion conference (also usually in August) have become important venues for presidential messaging on the conflict formerly known as the global war on terror. If you want an interesting comparison/contrast, read President Bush’s address to the American Legion in August 2007, a period when the president was locked in a different tough political battle with domestic critics. Back then, of course, Bush was locked in a tough fight with critics who wanted to shut down the surge, whereas now Obama is locked in a tough fight with critics who want to shut down his health care plan -- perhaps the comparison is a stretch but, as they say, it is bloggable.  

There is a general form to these speeches and Obama largely followed it -- lots of applause lines about gratitude to veterans and their families for their sacrifice, promises to honor those sacrifices, and calls on Americans to support veterans. The speeches also provide a time to highlight the president’s basic vision for national security during these current conflicts. As far as I can see, there does not appear to be a real news hook in today’s speech, but some bits struck me:

1. The president reiterated the “war of necessity, war of choice” distinction which, as I have argued before, just does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.  It is short-hand for “wars I support, wars I do not support.” Serious security studies specialists argued against the Afghanistan war from the outset and even more argue that we should walk away from Afghanistan now. I do not endorse their views, but I say that they are an existence proof that the necessity vs. choice distinction is more rhetorical than real. It may even be misleading, since we have lots of choices ahead in Afghanistan and it is entirely possible for us -- either the president or the public or both -- to get those choices wrong.

2. Calling the fight in Afghanistan necessary was as far as he went in terms of rallying the American people to the war. I would have liked to hear a bit more rallying than that. I suspect the speechwriters were also very deliberate in using the word “success” rather than “win” or “victory” in terms of Afghanistan. Doubtless, they have heard that our NATO allies believe that there is a meaningful distinction -- “success” being much less demanding than “victory.”  Personally, I find the “success” vs. “victory” argument strained, and I have yet to see much systematic polling evidence that shows the public draws that nuanced a distinction. For what it is worth, in the academic work I did with my Duke colleagues Chris Gelpi and Jason Reifler, we treated “success” and “victory” as largely synonymous.

3. He declared “mission success” in Afghanistan and Iraq -- or words to that effect:

In recent years, our troops have succeeded in every mission America has given them, from toppling the Taliban to deposing a dictator in Iraq to battling brutal insurgencies. At the same time, forces trained for war have been called upon to perform a whole host of missions. Like mayors, they've run local governments and delivered water and electricity. Like aid workers, they've mentored farmers and built new schools. Like diplomats, they've negotiated agreements with tribal sheikhs and local leaders...

4. Is this really any different from Bush’s much maligned speech aboard the aircraft carrier? Yes, but only in the sense that no one will complain about it.

5.The entire speech reminded me of then candidate-Bush’s Citadel speech, but this was especially striking in the section where Obama talks about defense transformation. It is worth pausing and reflecting on the fact that the Citadel speech was nearly a decade ago, and yet the goal of cost-effective defense transformation remains as elusive as ever.

All in all, the speech was fine and I am glad that the White House has continued the tradition of speaking out on national security during the August recess. I suspect, however, that other news events will likely have greater impact on national security, and other White House messaging will likely preoccupy the talking head community.

Shadow Government

Firing General McKiernan was right, but as for the reasons...

By Peter Feaver

The Washington Post has a long article giving a bit of the background to the firing of General McKiernan last spring from his post of commanding general in Afghanistan. I read it closely to see if it sheds new light that would require changing my preliminary assessment, which had been largely supportive of the move. At least as I read it, the somewhat fuller picture largely confirms what was previously known, and so no reassessment is needed. However, there are a few interesting tidbits that warrant comment.

First, the new report suggests that it was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Admiral Mullen, not Secretary Gates, who was the initiator of the move to replace McKiernan; as was previously reported, the White House involvement was distant and minimal. Gates had reached the same view, but the new report is written so as to emphasize the role of Mullen more than Gates. Perhaps this is just reportorial license -- the reporter, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, made his name writing a melodramatic account of the early days of Ambassador Bremer's tenure in Iraq. But if in fact it was Mullen not Gates who was the initiator, then this would mark a significant reassertion of authority for the Chairman's role.

Many critics claim that the Chairmen of the JCS were insufficiently assertive during the Bush years. Those critics tend to base their case on first-term policymaking rather than wrestling with the tough case: did we really want a more assertive Chairman of the JCS during the debate over the Iraq surge when the JCS opposed the surge? Now, if the new report is accurate, we really do have an assertive Chairman and, as it happens, we are in the midst of a new debate on a surge, this time in Afghanistan. Mullen's role, and therefore his views, could be decisive.

Second, the new report suggests that one of the complaints against McKiernan concerns his allegedly maladroit management of Washington politics. In Chandrasekaran's words:

It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials that top generals need to be as adept at working Washington as they are the battlefield, that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader who can also win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

McKiernan, it was argued, compared unfavorably with General Petraeus in his ability to "run the traps in Washington." This is a remarkable reversal given the way Democrats and their political allies complained about Petraeus' political savvy back in 2007. And the label "political general" usually is a pejorative one. In my experience, all 4-star generals have a strong orientation to the political, or at least the political-military aspects of their job, but not all 4-star leaders are adept at it. McKiernan's successor, General McChrystal, so far has appeared reasonably adept but the real challenge will come this fall if he determines he needs more U.S. troops and so is willing to risk a "whisky, tango, foxtrot" moment with the White House.

Third, and perhaps most interesting, the new report identifies one other complaint -- and even suggests this might have been the primary complaint -- against McKiernan: his alleged over-deference to NATO. Here is the really interesting bit:

By late last summer, he decided to tell George W. Bush's White House what he knew it did not want to hear: He needed 30,000 more troops. He wanted to send some to the country's east to bolster other U.S. forces, and some to the south to assist overwhelmed British and Canadian units in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

The Bush administration opted not to act on McKiernan's request and instead set out to persuade NATO allies to contribute more troops. With Washington then viewing NATO as the solution -- not the problem -- McKiernan seemed like the right general to help win over the allies. Before coming to Kabul, he had been the top Army commander in Europe, and he had been part of the NATO mission in the Balkans in the 1990s.

He deemed management of the alliance in Afghanistan one of his chief responsibilities. He met with an almost daily stream of visiting delegations from European capitals, and he sought to change some of the more Byzantine troop rules.

But back in Washington, McKiernan was increasingly seen as too deferential to NATO. By November, when it became clear that the Europeans would not be sending more troops, senior officials at the Pentagon wanted him to focus on making better use of the existing NATO forces -- getting them off bases and involved in counterinsurgency operations. Although McKiernan sought to do that, his superiors thought he was not working fast enough. Of particular concern was the division of the country into five regional commands, each afforded broad autonomy to fight as it pleased.

"He was still doing the NATO-speak at a time when Gates and Mullen were over it," a senior military official at the Pentagon said.

In other words, McKiernan got the sack because he was unable to get NATO to step up to the plate more smartly. Since McKiernan left, of course, the home-town presses in all of the NATO countries have been replete with stories about how costly their Afghan burden has been. I had a revealing conversation with a Europhile lately, and he made it clear that European elites are getting tired of hearing about how they are ducking responsibilities in Afghanistan. Viewed against that backdrop, and the larger failure of the soft power charm offensive in Europe on other national security issues like Gitmo, it is hard to see how this failure can be pinned on McKiernan.

But what I really want to know is what the Obama team expects from NATO and how they expect their coalition commander to navigate alliance politics. I, for one, hope that the Post follows up with some more reporting to amplify what this one anonymous senior military official meant when he said "Gates and Mullen were over it," where the "it" seems to be NATO.