Presidents are civilians, but they are also Commanders-in-Chief. Generals advise them in times of war, but there is an inherent conflict present in the relationship.
The buck stops on the president’s desk. But especially when he has no military experience or knowledge (and President Obama has neither, although he is not alone among past presidents in having little or none of both) it can be difficult to for a president to weigh how much to rely on his generals and how much to rely on himself.
LBJ famously faced this conundrum, and he solved it rather poorly. Sometimes he relied too much on his civilian “best and brightest” such as McNamara, and sometimes he believed the generals. But he was aware of his own limitations, as suggested by this excerpt from a April 1964 phone call with McNamara:
LBJ: Have we got anybody that’s got a military mind that can give us some military plans for winning that war?
RM: Well, Buzz Wheeler is going out with me.
LBJ: I know but he went out last time and he just came back with, with planes, that’s all he had in mind, wasn’t it?
RM: Well we, uh, yes, well he had more than that but he emphasized the planes. And the planes, Max Taylor agrees, are not the answer to the problem. Whether we should have more planes or not is another question, but it’s not going to make any difference in the short run, that’s certain.
LBJ: Let’s get some more of something, my friend, because I’m gonna have a heart attack if you don’t get me something. I’m just sitting here every day and uh, this war that I’m winning and I’m not doing much about fightin’ it, and uh I’m not doing much about winnin’ it, and I just read about it and uh. Let’s get somebody that wants to do something besides drop a bomb, but uh, that can go in and take in after these damn fellas and run them back where they belong. It looks like-…
We need somebody over there that can give us better plans than we’ve got, because what we’ve got is what we’ve had since ’54. We’re not getting it done, we’re, we’re losing so we need something new. It’s uh, if you pitch this ol’ southpaw every day and you wind up as the Washington Senators and you lose, well uh we’d better go us get us a new pitcher.
RM: I know it-
LBJ: Let’s find one. And tell those damn old generals over there to find one for ya, or you gonna go out there yourself…
Johnson struggled for his entire administration with this dilemma and never found a satisfactory answer, and it wound up ending his presidency prematurely. Now Obama faces a different version of the same conundrum. And I’m not at all sure that he’s aware of his own limitations in the area.
Let’s just assume, however, that Obama’s heart is at least in the right place, and that he wants the US to succeed in Afghanistan (if only to shore up his own reputation as a tough guy, or for other, less narcissitic, reasons). Even so, it’s not at all clear what’s to be done, just as it wasn’t clear for LBJ in Vietnam or for President Bush in Iraq. The surge was Bush’s answer during his administration, and it turned out to be a good one. But the decision wasn’t arrived at until a great deal of time had passed, and valuable blood and treasure wasted.
Obama is not short on advice, but of course it’s contradictory. There’s been a great deal of discussion about whether McChrystal was right in publicly discussing what he thinks ought to be done, or whether he should have kept quiet and taken it up with Obama only (of course, if Obama had previously consulted McChrystal—his own hand-picked commander in Afghanistan—more often, it might have been easier for the general to go the private route). But I’m more interested in the question of how a civilian president makes military decisions, including how he much he decides to follow the advice of his military advisers.
There is little question that Obama’s approach to Afghanistan was never well thought out, and is still very confused. We don’t need to see the inner working of the Obama circle to conclude that; as Christi Parsons reports in the LA Times:
The exchanges suggested some disarray in the Obama administration’s attempts to forge a new policy on Afghanistan and underscored wide differences among top officials over the correct approach.
Ah, but things were so much clearer to candidate Obama! Back in March of 2008, he had no problem seeing what Bush was doing wrong, and talking about it:
Obama said that while President Bush has said that he follows the advice of his generals regarding Iraq, when they give the president advice he doesn’t like — cautioning against the War in Iraq, for example — Bush doesn’t listen to them.
“There were generals at the beginning of the conflict that said this is going to require many more troops, will cost us much more … those generals were pushed aside,” Obama said.
Hindsight is wonderful, but the shoe is on the other foot now. And it’s not so easy after all, is it, President Obama?