Sunday, March 20, 2011

Obama's military triangulation

President Obama has not adequately explained why he decided to go to war in Libya. But this reported aspect of his decision-making process disturbs me:
In his meeting with Members of Congress today, sources tell ABC News, President Obama said he expected that the period that the US would be involved in heavy kinetic activity would be "days, not weeks," after which he said the US would then take more of a supporting role.
That recalls Obama's response to the conundrum of whether to ramp up or cut back U.S. engagement in Afghanistan.  Faced with the terrible choice of eschewing or undertaking military action (or reducing vs. escalating), Obama's signature decision seems to be "do it quickly" and "do it at minimal cost."  There's a kind of triangulation here that, while posing as an extreme realism (policy nuance based on the facts of the particular case) may actually reflect a form of escapism -- a bid to shape events to a degree that human activity can't attain. Perhaps that goes as well for the attempt the clothe the U.S.'s role as a supporting one -- though the latter does seem like good policy if you accept the premise that military action was required.

The decision-making pattern seems at least to rhyme with that portrayed in great detail by Bob Woodward in Obama's War.  As I've noted before, while Woodward does not explicitly pass judgment on Obama's chosen course, his narrative skews toward those in the administration's counsels who highlighted apparently insurmountable obstacles to standing up a self-sustaining government in Afghanistan: the total corruption of the Karzai regime, the complete failure to date of "handing off" responsibility to any unit of the Afghan army or police; the near-complete sanctuary enjoyed by the Taliban in Pakistan.  Rather than fully confronting the "mission impossible" implications, Obama imposed his own conditions on the military brass: do it with (somewhat) fewer troops, and do it on a shorter timeline.  That may have preserved his authority in some obscure sense, but seems unlikely to have increased the odds of a successful outcome.

Early in Obama's term, Andrew Sullivan said that the president is a trimmer -- and Sullivan cast that as a compliment.  I think the concept is right -- Obama hedges and fine-tunes his decisions -- but it's way too early to judge the outcomes.  The problems Obama inherited were so huge, and his approach to "change" so incremental, and our political system  so sclerotic, and his "trimming" so calibrated to that sclerosis, that it will be years until we know: Whether he can steer Congress into rational tax/budget reform, whether the ACA will be implemented and successful, whether the Afghan surge will tamp down civil war and crimp extremist havens, whether by saving the economy from collapse with moderate bailout and stress tests and "trimmed" stimulus he put it back on slow course to full renewal or left it to sputter toward accelerated relative decline, whether Dodd-Frank imposes meaningful curbs on financial industry rapine and risk-taking.  And these imagined future judgments are cast in overly personalized terms,  since so many other players and outside events affect the long-term outcome.

Since the earliest complaints about Obama's trimming were floated during the stimulus debate, my own "hope" that he will effect real needed "change" has always been shaped by Frederick Douglass's assessment of Lincoln, delivered 11 years after Lincoln's death:
Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.
I hope that we can say the same about Obama in 2027. But who knows?

More on the Libyan conundrum
O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together (3/23/11)
The Financial Times hearts dithering  (3/22/11)
Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet' (3/21/11)

A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)
No risk-free course in Libya  (3/18/11)

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