As the Prince of Denmark–pardon me, president of the United States–contemplates Hamid’s skull (“I knew him, Hillary! A man of infinite jest, of most excellent haberdashery!”) and his Good War options, one of the most perplexing questions is when and whether Gen. Stanley McChrystal will return to Washington to explain his strategy and why he needs more troops.
Members of Congress, be they pro-Afghanistan advocates like Sen. John McCain or skeptics like Sen. Carl Levin, are getting antsy, and the apparently wishy-washy briefings they’re getting thus far are making the situation worse. “We ought to get on now with what we know we need,” Levin said yesterday. But President Obama won’t be rushed, and he won’t play his trump card in McChrystal. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell says his boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, “does not believe now is the time to bring General McChrystal back to testify.”
In some ways, this is natural and appropriate; the president is commander-in-chief and needs both to take decisive action and to convince the rest of us that he’s doing the right thing. The delay is not only making the president’s task tougher but raising a question about whether he’s going to back his commander in the field. But even when Obama makes the call, Congress and the public more broadly will want reassurance from McChrystal. And, as a number of members stressed, they will also want to hear from Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the Iraq surge, who has worked long and hard to build trust in Washington.
Indeed, it was the infamous “General Betray-Us” hearings in the fall of 2007 which stemmed the Washington tide for withdrawal from Iraq. Now, as then, Americans will want to hear from – and take the measure of – the man who leads our troops. It may be awkward for civil-military relations, but it is a truth of our current politics that successful combat leaders like Petraeus and McChrystal have a credibility that a new president, and particularly a cool customer like Barack Obama, cannot match. Nor, for all their talents, can Secretary Gates or Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, do the trick. Especially if it comes to a showdown with the anti-war wing of his own party, the president needs to stand with his field generals.
Waiting adds to the drama, perhaps, but obscures the outcome. As of now, there is no combination of Lynn Woolsey Democrats and George Will Republicans who could refuse Barack Obama, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal whatever they ask for in terms of troops, time, or other resources. The White House might prefer to push its health care hopes first, but postponing the Afghanistan decision won’t make it easier, nor will it make Obama’s hand any stronger.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
This “is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence.”
Thus spake Mirek Topolanek, former prime minister of the Czech Republic, upon hearing news that the Obama Administration was scrapping plans to continue building long-range missile defenses in Europe. “It puts us in a position where we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat.”
This is a neat summary not only of the Czech Republic’s strategic position, but also that of all of America’s allies, be they in eastern or western Europe, the greater Middle East, South or East Asia. Ultimately, this is not about the utility of missile defenses, relations with Russia or Iran, but about the United States and its role as the guarantor of international security.
Nearly every day brings a new and chilling wind from the White House for our allies. Today it is felt in central Europe. Meanwhile, an agonized Obama cannot decide whether he’s really committed to winning “the Good War” in Afghanistan; the administration is eternally debating “first principles” rather than effective ways and means. Meanwhile, Pakistan is accelerating its nuclear program against the day when Washington turns its head. Meanwhile, Iraqi factions are jockeying for advantage after the Americans go; they already understand they’ve been forgotten. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s “strategic partnership” with India is on hold. Meanwhile, a new Japanese government contemplates life alone in the shadow of rising China and a defiant North Korea. Meanwhile, Australia begins to “hedge” against the ebbing of American power in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Pentagon conducts a defense review asking not how much is enough, but how little can we get by on.
The Obama Administration is proving to be not a collection of foxy tacticians, but a collective hedgehog that knows one big thing: political capital spent exercising American power abroad is capital lost in reshaping American society at home. But the United States cannot preserve the liberal international order if it adopts an economy-of-force approach. Nor will that order – or the general peace, prosperity and growth of liberty that are its distinguishing features – long survive.
There is a pattern here. The individual data points add up. Each decision marks a seemingly small retreat. But the larger picture is increasingly clear, if not yet to us than to the rest of the world, friend and foe alike: America is tired, and turning inward.
Retreating in the face or Russian foot-stomping is especially telling. Consider, for a moment, how Chinese strategy treats Russia: the Chinese know Russia is a collapsing empire, a demographic nightmare, and soon to be a third-rate military power. The Chinese, confident of their “rise,” are patient. They’ve mostly stopped buying Russian weapons, beyond the occasional bargain-basement deal. They are most certainly not looking for the “reset” button. They look ahead, not backward.
To be sure, we have a larger and more immediate agenda with Moscow. But each item has become a measure of our weakness and weariness: the response to the invasion of Georgia, fear of further NATO expansion, access to Afghanistan, reneging on missile defenses and desperation to sign a new nuclear arms control treaty. As Russia declines, we’re trying to console it for its losses; China wonders how to feast on the remains.
This is not good news for free states, or for the larger cause of freedom and independence.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
Most of the news coverage of Adm. Michael Mullen’s reconfirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday led with his confession that “we will need more resources to execute the president’s strategy”–resources meaning not only the funds requested by former International Security Assistance Force commander and current Amabassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, but the forthcoming troop request from current commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Lost behind that very big headline was an equally profound observation about the nature of U.S. strategy, not only for Afghanistan, but for the Long War.
The admiral also noted that the United States could not achieve its aims from “from offshore and you can’t do that by just killing the bad guys. You have to be there where the people are when they need you there.” In underscoring the problems of “offshore balancing”–which is the lingo used by security studies professors to describe an over-the-horizon military posture–the chairman not only rejected arguments advanced by columnist George Will (representing the Tory wing of the Republican Party) but also those of former Marine Commandant Charles Krulak. The recent killing of al-Qaeda-in-Africa leader Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan–implicated in the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998–had also seemed to make the offshore-balancing case.
But Mullen continued that McChrystal, Gen. David Patraeus and the rest of the service chiefs agreed: offshore balancing is inconsistent with American strategy in the region. This, too, marks a sea change in thinking among senior uniformed leadership, who traditionally have been offshore enthusiasts–particularly admirals and Marine generals. It’s a welcome sign that the top brass have embraced their mission, if not with bounding enthusiasm–for who would want to slog through a Long War if “rapid, decisive operations” and “long-range precisions strikes” were a realistic alternative?–then with steely determination.
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
It’s nearly a certainty that British conservatives will return to power with the next UK election. Current Prime Minister Gordon Brown appears to be a “dead man walking.” For conservative defense wonks here in the United States, that should be good news. Brown, no Tony Blair, has been less-than-stellar in supporting the UK’s contribution to the fight in Afghanistan and, more broadly, has let the gap between British defense needs and resources grow dangerously large. So much so, that many of Britain’s top defense experts are calling the days ahead, an “East of Suez moment”–meaning that London may well have to give up any and all pretensions of being a global partner to the United States.
But while British Labor has been particularly bad when it comes to defense matters, should American conservatives expect much more when the Tories return to power? Here, the early signals are not good. In theory, a new government could reverse course on Britain’s domestic welfare spending–which in many areas has more than doubled or even tripled under Blair and Brown–and carve out more for the military under the budget. If statements by the Tory opposition are taken at face value, however, there is little interest in reversing course on health or education spending should the party come to power.
And just this week, two new stories should give American conservatives further pause. First, in an interview with Defense News, Liam Fox, MP and Shadow Defence Secretary, made clear that should Tories win control of the government, there was no special urgency in ramping up defense spending. Rather, the government would undertake a year long review of the UK’s strategic posture before deciding what resources to dedicate to the military. In theory, not a crazy thing but, in practice, hardly what is needed. The British military is in a critical state–on life support; what it requires is triage, not a discussion about how a healthy diet and a change in lifestyle will make its golden years so much better.
Then, also this week, in a speech on the economy, George Osborne, MP and the Shadow Chancellor, let slip that he would be looking to save immediately some £30 billion in the budget by possibly cutting three large British defense programs: stopping procurement of new fighters, aircraft carriers, and transport planes. At a minimum, Osborne’s comments suggest divided opinion about how the Tories would like to approach defense issues. Just as likely, “hawks” within the party are simply in the minority and hoping that they can use the strategic review to set the ground for generating a bit more support down the road for some increase in defense spending. Given Tory leader David Cameron’s apparent lack of interest in defense and strategic matters, the betting in London among the Whitehall watchers is that Osborne’s “cut first, ask questions later” approach to defense is more likely to be one adopted by a Conservative government. Let’s hope they’re wrong.
Gary Schmitt is the director of advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
As reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, General Stanley McChrystal is expected to present the troop requests associated with his recent strategic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan in terms of “high risk,” “medium risk,” and “low risk” courses of action–presumably at the Obama administration’s request. Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno, some may recall, took a similar approach when outlining to the administration his force recommendations and timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“Risk management” is very much an en vogue concept among defense planners. Understandably so, given today’s many evolving international security challenges and the limited pool of resources with which to address them. The concept, however, works best when making choices about longer-term, very uncertain, more strategic issues–like force modernization–which can play out over decades. Should we buy more F-22s to deter or defend against a conflict with China? Or should we invest in sensors and unmanned systems more useful in protracted irregular conflicts? In short, strategic risk management lends a reassuring air of calculability and method to such decisions, and a feeling that, if the calculations are off a bit, they can be safely readjusted in a timely fashion.
But applying this “tweak-the-rheostat” approach to war is more problematic. In Afghanistan, Gen. MyChrystal has a very good grasp of the immediate battlefield situation and a definite course of action in mind. Thus, to mandate the presentation of alternative plans as “high risk,” “medium risk,” and “low risk” is to ask the commander to say, in effect, “here are the number of troops I need to complete my mission; here are the number of troops with which my mission would become more difficult to complete; here are the number of troops with which it would be darn near impossible to achieve my goals.” When Odierno laid out his plan for Iraq, there was little doubt that the so-called “low risk” option was in fact the minimum requirement he thought he needed.
Thinking that wartime risks can be “managed” is seductive, and carries with it a comforting illusion of rationality. It seems especially appealing to a “No Drama Obama” administration, whose top officials seem to see themselves as the masters of events, “never letting a good crisis go to waste.” Yet what is finely calibrated in a White House situation room becomes more chaotic on the battlefield, especially in a place like Afghanistan. It can be easy to forget the distinctions between risk management and victory.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
McClatchy correspondent Jonathan Landay recently conveyed a gripping account of his experience being ambushed on patrol with Marines near the village of Ganjgal, located in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, not far from the border with Pakistan. Beyond his evocation of the chaos, Landay’s reporting raises several questions. The first, raised by Bill Roggio at the Weekly Standard blog, was about the timeliness–or tardiness–of air or fire support. Landay himself later drew larger lessons about shortcomings of planning, intelligence, and resources more generally.
But another question springs to mind: In a war like this, to what extent are events like those described in Landay’s report simply in the arithmetic of the conflict? There are no doubt dozens of patrols encountering similar challenges every day. One of the great pieces of good fortune in the Iraq surge was that the enemy was not able to stage an event or attack that demonstrated acutely the vulnerability of U.S./coalition outposts. That’s going to be harder to manage in Afghanistan, as past close calls like the battles of Musa Qala or Wanat suggest. (Bing West’s recent reports echo a number of themes Landay addresses). What would the U.S. public opinion outcome be in the event of a squad- or platoon-sized Little Big Horn in Afghanistan? How would President Obama react?
Tom Donnelly is the director of the Center for Defense Studies.
In times of crisis, it is said, presidents immediately want to know where the Navy’s aircraft carriers are. As America’s preeminent symbols of power projection and national presence, the aircraft carriers have been at or near the center of U.S. military strategy for the past 65 years. So potent are they believed to be that Congress has legislatively mandated that a floor of twelve aircraft carriers be maintained at all times. That floor was breached in 2007, with the decommissioning of the USS John F. Kennedy, and the Navy has been operating only eleven carriers for over two years.
Until early 2010, if President Obama wants to know where the carriers are, he can find nearly 40 percent of his force undergoing repairs in Newport News, Virginia. The latest arrival is the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which joins the nearly 50-year old Enterprise, the George H.W. Bush, and the Carl Vinson, all of which are in various stages of maintenance. The Theodore Roosevelt is just beginning its mid-life Refueling and Complex Overhaul program, which will keep it out of service for 41 months, or three and a half years. Meanwhile, the George H.W. Bush, the last of the Nimitz-class carriers, is in the final stages of its pre-operational shakedown, while construction on the next generation Gerald R. Ford is in its early stages.
With four carriers tied up dockside, the U.S. Navy is left with just seven carriers worldwide: the USS Ronald Reagan has just relieved the Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and the John C. Stennis is recently back from deployment in the Western Pacific; in the Western Pacific, the Nimitz (commissioned in 1975) has joined the Japan-based George Washington, which is the Navy’s only forward home-ported carrier; Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman are based in the Atlantic. With transiting, rotations, and repairs, just three carriers are available for the entire Pacific Ocean area. Our operational tempo in Afghanistan is already increasing, but a North Korean or Iranian crisis, let alone other potential conflicts would severely strain the the U.S.’s ability to respond should the national security leadership decide to do so. As the carriers age, there may be future periods when a significant percentage of naval power is unavailable in times of crisis, let alone available simply to maintain regular operations. That may not be an argument for building more of the multi-billion dollar platforms, but the greater danger is that it becomes a de-facto argument to reduce America’s military and maritime presence in future decades. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Wendell Minnick of Defense News reported last week that China has for the first time publicly displayed the DF-31A, a road-mobile, nuclear ICBM, and the DH-10, a land-attack cruise missile, in a rehearsal for an October 1 parade marking the 60th anniversary of the PRC’s founding. Military and defense officials in China will explain that this is part and parcel of an effort to improve military transparency. This may be true, and foreign observers-who have long complained about the PLA’s opacity-will be happy to get a good look at these weapons next month. The display, however, is not simply an act of openness. As Minnick pointed out, the PLA is also making a statement. With the DF-31A, China is publicly demonstrating that it has a second strike capability (and one capable of reaching Washington, DC); with the DH-10, the PLA reminds us that our forces on Okinawa remain vulnerable.
Neither of these facts is likely to surprise intelligence agencies and China watchers in the U.S. But they are important nonetheless because they (should) remind us of a couple things. First, nuclear weapons are not yet obsolete. President Obama has set a long-term goal of eliminating these weapons completely. This is, perhaps, a noble goal, but in the shorter term, the president must ensure that our nuclear posture is appropriately tailored to ever-changing threats, both from upstart nuclear states like North Korea and from established nuclear powers like China.
Second, this “statement” from the PLA should remind us that the United States and China are engaged in a simmering military competition. The DH-10 is just one of many weapons systems that are at least in part designed to counter U.S. military capabilities. Some systems, like China’s anti-satellite weapons or its forthcoming anti-ship ballistic missile, have been explicitly developed to neutralize American forces. These types of weapons upset the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, making conflict more likely. One hopes that our leaders are taking the emerging military competition as seriously as China’s are. Should the military balance be allowed to lean in China’s favor, peace in Asia could soon be a thing of the past.
Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute