Many recent commentaries on Bob Woodward’s new book about the strategic review the Obama Administration undertook before deciding on its current strategy for Afghanistan have remarked about the resistance from his military advisors to his efforts to find alternatives to an open-ended commitment to that country. The President, having earlier made the decision without much review to send 30,000 more troops to that country and replace the general in charge with a real counterinsurgency snake eater (General McChrystal), not surprisingly, was a wee bit reluctant to double down on Afghanistan without a serious review of the situation and the options. A number of observers have noted the intensity with which the administration’s military leadership all-but unanimously pushed for an expansion of U.S. involvement, including a larger commitment of forces, and the pursuit of a classic counterinsurgency strategy. In this endeavor, the President’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, is reported to have been a conspicuous opponent of his boss’s effort to reign in the military’s plans for Afghanistan.
Since that time, it can be argued that Secretary Gates has continued to oppose the White House’s desire for a commitment to Afghanistan limited in both resources and time. He has been quoted in the press suggesting that the July, 2011 date the President set for the beginning of a withdrawal from Afghanistan should be viewed as more symbolic than real.
The Secretary of Defense also has stood as a bulwark against efforts by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to reduce his department’s budget. He alone among cabinet secretaries has managed to get a deal from the President in which the Department of Defense will get 1% annual real growth (after inflation) in its budget while the others are all slated to experience flat or even declining budgets in real terms. In addition, the Secretary gained acceptance by OMB and the White House for his plans to return overhead savings achieved by his department to the military services to support modernization and quality of life for the troops. Usually when a department saves money it is returned to the Treasury. In addition, the Secretary has taken major program cuts off the table, declaring publicly that his goal is to achieve cost reductions through efficiencies.
In many ways, Secretary Gates has played Thomas Becket to President Obama’s Henry II. Like the canonized prelate, Secretary Gates has expanded his powers and acted in quiet opposition to his boss. Similarly, President Obama has discovered his freedom of action and efforts to make policy significantly limited by his own councilor. Henry conducted his own strategic review and formulated a program to limit the power of the Church in England (the Constitutions of Clarendon), Becket refused to sign on to the new policy, thereby prompting Henry’s outrage and his intemperate remark regarding his erstwhile friend. It would not be surprising if sometimes in the midst of the power struggles between these two powerful men the President secretly thought, as King Henry is alleged to have actually said out loud, “will no one rid me of this meddlesome prince.”
In coming into office, the new administration made what many observers thought was a brilliant decision by asking Secretary Gates to stay on. In a single action they not only achieved a degree of continuity in leadership in wartime but also acquired a certain degree of credibility and even I dare say gravitas on national security matters which “Team Obama” lacked.
In hindsight, this decision may have been a mistake (something I argued at the time). It passed up the opportunity to put its own people into office with clear consequences when it came to the President’s desire to be given alternative options on Afghanistan. The administration is stuck to the tar baby of AfPak, as the Afghanistan-Pakistan region is called. But it is also committed to beginning a withdrawal in 2011. Talk about your no-win situations. In addition, the administration is stuck at least through 2012 to an expansive and very expensive national defense strategy and force structure plan devised by Secretary Gates at the end of the last administration but carried forward into the new one.
Well, the President will soon be rid of his “meddlesome” Secretary of Defense. Gates has announced his intention to resign, probably to take effect around the time the fiscal 2012 budget request is sent to Capitol Hill. The national security advisor, Jim Jones, has just announced his resignation. Equally interesting, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen will leave his post. Even General Petraeus has been sidelined by his appointment to head the effort in Afghanistan. This situation gives the administration a chance to recapture control over national security and the current wars from the Department of Defense. You can be assured that this time the White House will not nominate individuals with an independent power base or who are not committed to the President’s agenda.
This could be good for the collegiality of decision making on national security. However, it does not bode well either for the efforts in AfPak or for the future of defense spending and the current defense program. The successors to Gates, Jones and Mullen will all be picked for their loyalty to the President. No more team of rivals nonsense. As a result, the future of the strategy in Afghanistan, the defense budget, force structure and military programs will be up for grabs.
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