Obama’s Military Blind Spot?


zakheim mullen eisenhower nixon center.jpg
Barack Obama is about to become the 44th President of the United States and like most Presidents, he will begin (if he hasn’t already) to read as many profiles and biographies of great leaders as he can pile on his night table.
Or Lincoln’s.
Obama will try to understand how they processed complex challenges and look for templates of analysis, decision and action that might be relevant to his own life and new daunting responsibilities.
On Monday night, I attended the Nixon Center’s annual dinner honoring Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen who reflected on an assessment that Richard Nixon made of Eisenhower about the question of military power.
Admiral Mullen stated:

President Nixon, in his memoirs, recalled that same kind of surprise during a discussion on national security in 1951, when then General Eisenhower emphasized the political and economic facets of foreign policy rather than the military.
“This impressed me,” wrote Nixon, “because then, as now, it was unusual to hear a military man emphasize the importance of non-military strength.”

This is one of many passages in which American presidents have struggled with the efficacy of American military power and have tried to think through the best strategies to achieve America’s national security and global objectives.
Admiral Mullen wafted into his Nixon-Eisenhower comment through the portal of late 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke and added his own name to that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others who have asserted that America’s most significant security threats can’t be met by even the most richly endowed military machine. Other parts of the diplomatic and civil society establishment must be key parts of the American action plan.
Mullen stated in his interesting address:

The use of military means to achieve political ends is a thread of a rich discussion, one that reaches back through the ages. It was certainly so even in the winter of 1775, as Edmund Burke spoke on the floor of parliament at a time when England decided to send an army and a navy to put down the American rebellion.
Although Burke wasn’t exactly espousing our independence in his speech, he did question his government’s reliance upon military force in preventing it.
“Those who wield the thunder of the state,” Burke said, “may have more confidence in the efficacy of arms.
“But,” he continued, “My opinion is much more in favor of prudent management than of force, considering force not as an odious, but a feeble instrument in preserving a people as spirited as this.”
Had Burke’s contemporaries listened to him, perhaps things might be a bit different on this side of the ocean. But what about today?
I can only imagine his surprise if he were to hear our Secretary of Defense calling for more assets for our Foreign Service, USAID, the Departments of Agriculture, Justice, Commerce, and other non-uniformed implements of power and influence.
Surprised as well, perhaps, to hear someone actually wearing the uniform, standing before you tonight, telling you the same thing – much as I did back in 2005 as the head of our Navy.
President Nixon, in his memoirs, recalled that same kind of surprise during a discussion on national security in 1951, when then General Eisenhower emphasized the political and economic facets of foreign policy rather than the military.
“This impressed me,” wrote Nixon, “because then, as now, it was unusual to hear a military man emphasize the importance of non-military strength.”
So at the very least, I know I’m not the first. And I hope I’m not the last.

Barack Obama, at least as things stand now, has continued to characterize Afghanistan as the war America should morally wage and which is the good war in contrast to Iraq, “the bad war.”
Obama has also repeatedly stated that he wants to increase the size of the American military by about 90,000 active duty troops. Although America’s defense expenditures are greater than all other nations in the world combined — and yet Americans do not feel safe — Obama wants to pump up the manpower and resources available to the Pentagon without demanding a serious management review.
Resources can’t be the problem — mismanagement must be, and yet the President elect has hardly touched this issue.
Today, America’s power in the world is wielded both by the size of the Pentagon and by the size of its national debt. This is not a healthy posture for the country and not sustainable.
Obama would be wise to read up on Eisenhower, on Nixon, on Edmund Burke and others — and realize that for him to be a truly great leader, he must get out of today’s intertia-drive decisions that lean too much towards military answers to problems — and that are leading the US to greater calamity, global irrelevance, and impotence.
— Steve Clemons


19 comments on “Obama’s Military Blind Spot?

  1. A.Y.W says:

    The American people trust that Barack Obama will conscientiously address issues related to the military.
    Barack Obama is a great president!
    Speaking of Barack Obama:
    Barack Obama is a racial-minority individual and does not like racism:
    (I) I do solemnly swear by Almighty God that George W. Bush committed atrocious, racist, hate crimes of epic proportions and with the stench of terrorism which I am not at liberty to mention. Many people know what Bush did. And many people will know what Bush did—even until the end of the world. Bush was absolute evil. Bush is now like a fugitive from justice. Bush is a psychological prisoner. Bush often worries. In any case, Bush will go down in history in infamy.
    (II) It is opined that Bill Clinton committed terrifying, racist, hate crimes during his presidency, and I am not free to say anything further about it. ‘Be sure your sins will find you out’ (Numbers 32:23).
    (III) What if basically all racial-minority people would subscribe to the interpretations that George Herbert Walker Bush committed monstrous, racist, hate crimes while he was the President of the United States? It will eventually come out: it is only a matter of time.
    (IV) I know it may be hard to believe. However, Ronald Wilson Reagan committed horrible, racist, hate crimes during his presidency.
    Respectfully Submitted by Andrew Wang, J.D. Candidate
    B.S., Summa Cum Laude, 1996
    Messiah College, Grantham, PA
    Lower Merion High School, Ardmore, PA, 1993
    (I can type 90 words per minute, and there are thousands of copies on the Internet (by March 29, 2009) indicating the contents of (I), (II), (III), and (IV). And there are thousands of copies in very many countries around the world.)
    ‘If only there could be a ban against invention that bottled up memory like scent & it never faded & it never got stale.’ Off the top of my head, it came from my Lower Merion High School yearbook.


  2. Don Bacon says:

    What the US hopes to achieve in Afghanistan are continuing high military expenses, a distraction from domestic issues and a continuing military presence in the heart of South Asia, and from that presence flows all sorts of economic and hegemonic possibilities concerning matters such as energy in Turkmenistan and the encirclement of Iran.
    The very impossibility of success in Afghanistan contributes to its advisability. Like the war on drugs, this could go on forever. (Unless, of course, there is an Islamic Charlie Wilson. That would change everything.)
    There is a possibility of disaster, but that simply amplifies the importance of being there to confront these dastardly terrorists who are so powerful they even threaten the US!
    The new Decider has decided. Who are we to interfere? It’s Afghanistan or bust.


  3. TonyForesta says:

    There in an inherent disonesty in American policy.
    I’ve pointed out repeatedly that Afghanistan is the most treacherous and inhospitable warspaces on earth. No nation or empire has ever ruled, or governed these regions in the history of the earth. It is fruitless, impotent, and suicidal to pour American troops in uniform and massive armor and landforces into this hellhole. Why not put bulleyes on our troops and tanks? Pouring troops and hardware into Afghanistan is a recipe for disaster. Doesn’t anyone in the intelligence and military apparatus read history?
    Are American goals in Afghanistan a stabilized Afghanistan, – a democracy in Afghanistan, – a decaptation of the Taliban and al Quaida forces now ruling most of Afghanistan, – containment of Pakistani nukes – or are we using the Afghanistan conflict as an underhanded backdoor cloaked excuse to establish a US military presense and numerous permanent bases through-out the region to erect an energy and oil corridor out of the Cacausus to control the distribution of oil and natural gas out of the Caspian bypassing Russia?
    All these various strategic ends call for entirely different strategic and tactical approaches and entirely different uses of force and kinetics in the region.
    What attempting to achieve and what our our (America’s) objectives in Afghanistan.
    What are we, America doing and why? Answering these questions will define goals in Afghanistan and the region.
    Please, will someone be honest about what we are hoping to achieve in Afghanistan?


  4. Sam says:

    The fact is that the Military budget is a resource draining burden on the taxpayer dollar there needs to be more focus on responsible spending and oversight on military expeditures. That said I believe Obamma will within a year or possibly two, mplement sweeping changes to the military.


  5. DonnaZ says:

    Read Eisenhower? Yes. Or he could just talk to Gen. Clark who has
    said the same thing many, many times. Clark is also the only one to
    make sense regarding Afghanistan.


  6. PissedOffAmerican says:

    As soon as American troops stop paying off the Sunnis, and leave Iraq in any great numbers, who doubts that Iraq will resume its sect based violence?
    And this will occur while American military “advisors”, civilian contractors, and American diplomats are in country, in danger, and undoubtedly getting killed and even taken hostage.
    Don’t fool yourselves for a moment that there is an end in sight in Iraq.
    And David invests way too much optimism in Obama’s future ability, or intent, to somehow turn the Afghanistan clusterfuck into a winnable equation. Its not unreasonable to assume that Obama is going to increase troop levels. Its also not unreasonable to assume that he will increase our engagement in Pakistan. He has promised to do the former, and hinted at the latter. And judging from the pimp media foreshadowing on Pakistan, with an ever increasing demonization, we have to assume these bloodthirsty ogres in Washington have big things in store for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
    Then, of course, you have Obama staffing the castle with AIPAC darlings and Defense Industry favorites, so its not hard to predict that Palestinian mothers can continue to look forward to watching their kids get starved, incinerated, or, at the very least, radicalized.
    I think its naive to say that we have no idea what Obama will do. He has already told us all we need to know to make accurate predictions. Of course, most telling was his comment that he did not feel that Bush has committed grave and intentional breeches of the President’s authority. It fits right in with his “we need to look forward, not backward” horseshit, and his “theres only one President at a time” excuse for standing mute while these fucking monsters in Israel dump White Phosphorous on a civilian population.
    Obama is an open book. And its just another dime store horror novel.


  7. DavidT says:

    Thanks for your very thoughtful and well articulated response to my posts.
    You are right that I am taking some things on faith that perhaps I shouldn’t. I really don’t know what Obama is going to do in Afghanistan. I don’t really know what he’s going to do in Iraq.
    Rather what I generally do is ask myself if I were in his shoes what would I do that I would consider sensible — both from a policy perspective and from a practical / political perspective.
    I agree with jonst and Dan Kervick that Steve’s framing is not particularly nuanced. That’s my biggest objection.
    All evidence I have seen suggests that Obama is someone who doesn’t view things as “send in the marines” so to speak as a solution to problems when we face them. It is not in his interests, and I think if he can’t see that then we have much bigger problems in other areas, to move from one quagmire to another. To me that’s just common sense and all that I’ve seen of Obama suggests that he’s sensible.
    However to point out that a hefty buildup may not be wise does not tell me what to do. Iraq had nothing directly to do with 9/11. Its hard to say the same about Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean we get bogged down there or send many more men there. It does mean that we will have to somehow lessen the mess we created / played a role in when we hit Afghanistan and then moved most of our resources to Iraq.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful retort.


  8. Dan Kervick says:

    I share the deep skepticism over Obama’s apparent plans for Afghanistan.
    However, I’m not sure it is fair or accurate to characterize Obama’s position, as Steve does, as being that Afghanistan is “the good war” that America should “morally wage”. This makes him sound like some sort of dopey crusading do-gooder, whose position is grounded in pure moralism.
    Afghanistan is a war that we *did* choose to wage, and I believe that Obama’s position has long been that Afghanistan remains a high strategic priority for the United States, a priority from which the Us was distracted by the Iraq adventure.


  9. Paul Norheim says:

    You could also argue – given past experiences in Afghanistan and
    the current circumstances – that even the best action plan, if a
    significant increase of the military efforts is a key component, is
    likely to lead to a bad result.


  10. jonst says:

    I would argue that the issue is less what force, “diplomatic, civil, military” should be employed in what measure. Than it is to agree upon what an “American action plan” should be. Bad plan, with the forces allocated, ‘properly’, as Steve would have it, still leads to a bad result.


  11. Paul Norheim says:

    I have often observed a particular clan among the Obama fans,
    who do not restrict themselves to cherry picking from the many
    things Obama have said during the last couple of years, but also
    feel free to cherry pick from all those things he never said.
    DavidT, are you one of those?
    In your reply to me, you said: “The Democrats, including
    Obama, used the focus of Afghanistan to provide themselves
    cover for attacks of being weak on defense in their desire to get
    out of Iraq.” What you`re saying, is that although himself many
    times have promoted a “surge” in Afghanistan, sending more
    troops to the front, he actually doesn`t mean it. It`s just a
    cover, showing that he is tough. When he becomes the
    President, he will transform into a dove.
    And then you add: “Obama can get a pretty good read from how
    things are going in Afghanistan from all his advisors and will act
    accordingly once he becomes commander in chief.”
    So you are confident that he will act “accordingly”, whatever that
    is supposed to mean?
    But then you surprise us with an unexpected twist: “However, in
    both your cases, I don’t see what alternative he has — for so
    many reasons — like it or not. Or do you think a president can
    realistically just pull our military out of that area in spite of the
    fact that the Taliban is strengthening and al Qaeda could
    reestablish its stronghold there.”
    What you actually are saying, is that Obamas suggestions to
    send more troops to Afghanistan must be read both as a tactical
    maneuver to avoid criticism from the hawks, and as a statement
    of what he actually intends to do?
    Exactly. I think this is what most of us have guessed. So what
    your reaction boils down to is a simple thing: you support an
    increased military effort in Afghanistan (which the President-
    elect has promised), while Steve and a lot of others – also within
    the US military, as well as people from European NATO-
    membership countries – have serious doubt as to the results of
    an escalation of the war in Central Asia.
    You seem to have a strong confidence in Obama doing the right
    thing, or acting “accordingly” as you formulate it. This is not
    founded in specific statements, because – as you say, he has
    not made them yet: he is not president yet.
    So let me ask you: why do you and the rest of those who have
    high hopes, possess a right to express their confidence that
    Obama does the right thing (i.e. no withdrawal, but increasing
    the military efforts), while those who lack that confidence don`t
    have the right to express their doubts, without being accused of
    ad hominem attacks and premature judgements?


  12. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    Although the Tony’s expressed views carry moral
    and political leverage,it yet seems to have a
    policy-enigma for the US leadership_ in past,
    present and probably in the future_to learn from


  13. TonyForesta says:

    The Romans issued to its citizens and emmisaries medallions which were carried into the farther reaches of the empire as emblems of their superiority and status as members of the rulers of the earth. While Rome was preeminent, anyone anywhere that harmed or in anyway disrespected the authority of Rome, or if anyone, – anyone – wearing the medallion of Rome was harmed and disrespected, – the response from Rome was swift and brutal. Roman Legions were loosed and the offending parties were mecilessly crushed and slaughtered. All of them The guilty and the innocent alike. In that way foreigners learned by the tip of a brutal spear, and the blood of thier people, that messing with Rome was a very bad idea. America operates along the same principles. Attila the Hun adopted similar strategies and tactics.
    The problem now is that like latter Rome, a corrupt and diseased America is in a state of rapid decline. Our terrible swift sword and hypersuperior military is the only force or apparatus that prevents the rest of the world from spurning or burning America. Once that threat dissapates, – the second America is no longer owner of the hypersuperior military – we – like Rome will burn and our once grand empire will collapse completely.
    Until that day, expect more legions to be loosed, and more blood to be shed to enforce our will and way upon the world. But the day of reckoning is fast approaching.


  14. Linda says:

    Great post, Steve!
    For at least a decade OMB or somebody has given fiscal management grades to all Executive branch departments and agencies. I don’t recall the exact mandate or legislation, but they actually issue annual report cards in several categories of fiscal management. I believe one can find these ratings at http://www.govexec.com.
    One thing I do know is that repeatedly in almost all areas DOD consistently gets F’s, and the consensus is that it can’t be fixed and is an impossible task. Other departments and agencies improve, but not DOD. Yet it is common knowledge that’s where the most waste, fraud, and abuse is.
    I hear Obama talking about going through the budget line-by-line of discretionary programs (actually very small compared to entitlements and DOD) and entitlements (large but goes to people and is spent). I don’t hear much said about getting fiscal control and discipline at DOD.
    It took a lot of negotiation and work just to set up a system to close military bases in U.S. And there is no doubt that the military-industrial-complex also is Congressional with defense industry in almost every Congressional district.
    We spend more and get less on DOD than any other nation in the world by far on defense, and yet we aren’t safer as a result. So new federal productivity/performance officer should start with DOD.
    And if the public doesn’t demand this kind of accountability, then the best quote of all from Burke is: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”


  15. daCascadian says:

    I still continue to be amazed that you people are ranting about
    Mr. Obama`s supposed bad behavior before he has even taken
    the oath of office.
    Knock it off & grow up. Give him a chance to actually make a
    mistake before jumping on your high horse.
    “Television made dictatorship impossible, but it made democracy
    intolerable.” – Shimon Peres


  16. DavidT says:

    Obama is not president yet. The Democrats, including Obama, used the focus of Afghanistan to provide themselves cover for attacks of being weak on defense in their desire to get out of Iraq. Obama can get a pretty good read from how things are going in Afghanistan from all his advisors and will act accordingly once he becomes commander in chief. I have no trouble urging Obama to go careful on Afghanistan but to harshly criticize a policy (that he needs to read Nixon and Eisenhower) that has yet to be developed to me is silly.
    As for stating a goal, John H, again Obama won’t be president until January 20th. He would of course be well advised to articulate a strategy in pursuing a fight in Afghanistan.
    However, in both your cases, I don’t see what alternative he has — for so many reasons — like it or not. Or do you think a president can realistically just pull our military out of that area in spite of the fact that the Taliban is strengthening and al Qaeda could reestablish its stronghold there. I’m happy to get out too but I’ll leave it to the two of you and Steve to come up with an explanation to the American public why we did so.


  17. JohnH says:

    “If we shouldn’t send in more troops, what should we do?” Answer: figure out what we’re trying to accomplish.
    Unless Obama can articulate a clear goal for Afghanistan and spell out well defined military missions to support that goal, he will fail as Bush failed. Without a goal, there will be lots of military action with spectacular TV footage (and massive expenditures draining debt capacity), but in the end we will just be flailing about mindlessly. If we don’t know what we’re trying to do, it can’t end any other way.
    “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might not get there.” -Yogi Berra


  18. Paul Norheim says:

    Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to send more troops to
    Afghanistan (and have repeatedly suggested that NATO member
    countries should do the same).
    Do you really expect everybody, Steve included, to wait patiently
    until Obama does so, and then eventually criticise him, when he
    have proven to be the new LBJ, escalating the war in Afghanistan
    with no end in sight?


  19. DavidT says:

    Steve, Steve, Steve,
    When will you accept that Barack Obama is our president and you should evaluate him the way you evaluate other political figures you could come to like. What do you base your assertion that he is against a management review? Why do you feel the need to attack his views on Afghanistan when its really not clear what those views are (yes he’s been saying some things but what do you expect with the Iraq War and so many people’s focus on it). And once again, you take your favorite approach, which is ad hominem.
    With respect to jumping all over him on this policy before he takes office, please inform us of the “secret” plan Nixon had to help us win the War in Vietnam that he spoke of before he became president.
    Secondly, if we shouldn’t send in more troops, what should we do? You have written about this in previous posts and raised, quite rightly I believe, alarm bells. But as is so often the case, you make criticisms without offering answers. What should we do in concrete terms (and I don’t mean “reject the false choices of the Bush Administration” which is fine but doesn’t tell me what to do)?
    Why don’t you explain the basis for your comment (after quoting our top military officer at length in a respectful manner) that our problem is mismanagement not a lack of resources. Could it not be both? Aren’t we stretched pretty thin as it is?


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