The Afghanistan dither: Obama dug this ditch on his own

Despite his relative inexperience in national security matters, this was not inevitable; during the campaign President Obama showed himself to be fairly deft rhetorically in regards to civil-military relations and he carried this strong performance through the first several months of his presidency. However, in recent months he has seemed far less at ease with his wartime Commander-in-Chief role.

If Obama regains a deft touch, the crash can be averted. To avert it he needs to do more than simply endorse the McChrystal request, though that would surely help. He needs to show that he respects the civil-military process, and he needs to rein in his advisors who have been stumbling about. If he is going to over-rule McChrystal, which is his right as a Commander-in-Chief, he will have a much steeper climb out of his civil-military hole. At a minimum, he will need to forthrightly take ownership of the war and all of its consequences and spend the political capital he has hitherto avoided spending on national security issues to explain his decision to the American people and the American military. Of course, while President Obama and his team bear the lion’s share of the responsibility for the current civil-military friction, they cannot by themselves get out of the hole they have dug. The military will have to help by rigorously sticking to proper norms of civil-military relations. That means they must not counter-leak, not even to defend themselves from scurrilous attacks from unnamed White House staffers; seek redress quietly, within the system, and within the chain of command. They must avoid threatening President Obama with resignations in protest if he overrules their advice; such threats subvert the principle of civilian control which implies that civilians have a right to be wrong. And they must be prepared to do their utmost to implement Obama’s chosen strategy as effectively as they can with whatever resources he puts at their disposal.