This is a guest note by former Department of State Chief of Staff Lawrence B. Wilkerson. Wilkerson is the Pamela C. Harriman Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William Mary
Damned if You Do and Damned If You Don’t
President Obama is in a corner.
He is there because of things he did and things others did and are doing, and because of realities he cannot escape.
The decision he will announce tonight is not based on militarily strategic thinking. It can’t be because if it were the minimum number of additional troops he would be sending to Afghanistan would be a quarter million.
That’s using a “Ken Shinseki” template, i.e., looking at the formidable terrain, the population size and composition, the sheer size of the country, and the seven years of under-resourcing and neglect, and estimating the number of troops to, under the present circumstances, carry out a counterinsurgency campaign with at least a 50-50 chance of success in a 5-10 year time frame.
The arsenal is just about empty.
Given U.S. force deployments in Iraq, Korea, Europe, and elsewhere, plus Secretary Gates’ commitment to increase time between troop rotations and the overall stress already felt by the Army and Marine Corps, there simply are not sufficient land forces left in the U.S. arsenal. So the President is going with a little less than what does remain.
Moreover, the decision will be made partly because of the President’s own campaign promises, i.e., to focus on the war in Afghanistan rather than the war in Iraq, reversing the emphasis of the administration from which he inherited both wars, badly waged.
The decision will be made too because the President’s generals-in-the-field–principally Generals Petraeus and McChrystal–have contributed to his being cornered. Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen have added their bureaucratic weight as well.
McChrystal was ingenious enough to make his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan so dismal that it colors him innocent regardless of whether he fails in Afghanistan–the clear likelihood–or succeeds.
Petraeus too has kept a foot in both camps, being simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic.
The Generals artfully ensnared their Commander-in-Chief.
Furthermore, no Democrat wishing to stay in the Oval Office can show ankle on a national security issue without incurring the wrath of the Limbaugh-led opposition party, without risking the mid-term elections, and without adding to the image of a feckless political party when it comes to that all-important issue, national security.
Adding, I am certain, immeasurably to the President’s woes, is the fact that he is sitting atop a nearly bankrupt republic. He inherited two wars that were paid for–indeed are still paid for–to the tune of a couple of trillion dollars by largely the Japanese and the Chinese backing American debt. He hasn’t even been able to return the dissemination of those borrowed dollars to the standard process, i.e., to the oversight of properly appropriated funds. Supplemental spending is still being used.
Next year, as state tax revenues plummet even further, as real unemployment approaches 20%, as more foreclosures rock the housing market, as empty commercial real estate sprouts more and more “for lease” signs, and as increasing numbers of foreigners register their deep concern about the dollar, the President will be trapped and, like his predecessor–and very decent man–Herbert Hoover, probably be unable to extricate himself from one-term doomsday.
So, tonight’s decision is made on a wing-and-a-prayer.
My academic field is presidential decision-making, particularly from Harry Truman to Barak Obama.
In that short history, there have never been, in combination, similar circumstances to those I’ve described above. A few aspects are repetitive. Harry Truman had to rid himself of a politically-motivated general-in-the-field when he fired Douglas MacArthur. John Kennedy promised to handle Cuba if he were elected over Richard Nixon, only to have to “handle” Cuba with the Bay of Pigs.
Lyndon Johnson had to make a decision to escalate in Vietnam when it was likely that every bone in his body told him to get out. But there has not been a case where all the circumstances described above impacted a president’s decision-making at one time and, clearly, never has the U.S. been in such fiscal straits as it is in now–and faced them without the incredible productive capacity that it possessed in 1929 and that, with the advent of WWII, was able to “produce” the nation out of ruinous financial circumstances and, stunningly and simultaneously, offset staggering war debt.
All this to say that I understand the political circumstances that are compelling our President to the decision he will announce tonight–as much as any academic could understand them, at any rate.
If you are a praying person, he needs your prayers and support. If you are not, he needs your support. Because all of us Americans put him where he is–and I do not mean by votes.
We–all of us–let George W. Bush and Richard B. Cheney set us up. Moreover, we all contributed to creating the perilous fiscal state that is now a more dangerous threat to our country than any terrorist could ever hope to be.
— Lawrence B. Wilkerson