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05.17.10

Obama Stands Up to the Generals

A new book reports that Obama muscled the Pentagon into accepting a tight timetable for exiting Afghanistan. Peter Beinart on the political risks and rewards in sticking to the deadline.

About a year from now, Washington will witness an epic clash between President Barack Obama and the leaders of the United States military. That’s the big takeaway from Jonathan Alter’s new book, The Promise, about Obama’s first year in office. Ever since last December, when Obama told a crowd at West Point that he was both sending reinforcements to Afghanistan and planning to begin withdrawing them 18 months later, most commentators have assumed that the surge is real but the timetable is fake. The more money the military spends and the more blood it spills, goes the logic, the more invested it will become in the fight. And since barely anyone believes that America and its allies will have crippled the Taliban by next summer, Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal will presumably block any substantial withdrawal. After all, as David Halberstam details in The Best and the Brightest, civilians tend to delude themselves that military deployments are like faucets they can turn off at will when, in fact, the more troops they send, the more authority they cede to the men with stripes on their shoulders. Stopping a war that the military does not want stopped requires a massive civil-military showdown, the kind that Harry Truman triggered when he fired Douglas MacArthur in 1951 because the general would not stop trying to reunify the Korean Peninsula. Few in the punditocracy believe Barack Obama would do any such thing.

In his calm, even-tempered, self-consciously non-threatening way, Obama is proving far more of a gambler than many expected six months ago.

Alter suggests that Obama just might. The way Alter tells the story, last summer, General Petraeus, General McChrystal and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen leaked to the press that they wanted lots more troops for an indefinite period, thus backing Obama into a corner. Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates basically supported the brass. Obama, however, spurred by Joe Biden, fought back, virtually accusing Gates and Mullen of insubordination, and countering with White House leaks that cast doubt on the wisdom of an open-ended commitment. Finally, a deal was struck, which gave the military the extra troops it wanted, but created the summer 2011 deadline for withdrawals to begin. Almost immediately, Clinton, Gates and Petraeus began publicly downplaying the deadline, which confirmed the suspicions of pundits that it was mostly for show. But Alter claims that behind closed doors, Obama told the military brass again and again that after 18 months their time was up. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?” he asked Petraeus, Mullen and Gates. The U.S. must “not occupy what you cannot transfer” to the Afghans by 2011, he told McChrystal again and again.

Sebastian Junger Talks About His Experience with WarDoes this mean that the U.S. is going to begin getting out in a year? No, what it means is that the president of the United States believes that the U.S. is going to begin getting out in a year. Usually, one would bet against Obama in a circumstance like this. But if he stood his ground with the military last summer when he was only six months into the job (and didn’t have the health-care win under his belt), he’ll presumably be even harder to intimidate a year from now. Biden is clearly on his side, and on Iraq, where the administration has come under some pressure to delay U.S. withdrawals because of political instability, Obama has so far refused to budge. What’s more, there’s clearly a political advantage to beginning the drawdown in time for the presidential campaign in 2012. “In July of 2011 you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it,” Biden told Alter. “Bet. On. It.”

It’s hard to imagine that the fight against the Taliban will be anywhere near complete by then, or that McChrystal, Mullen and Petraeus will easily acquiesce, particularly if Republicans—who will be stronger in Congress—rally to their side. But it’s remarkable that Obama is making the effort at all. From his willingness to challenge Benjamin Netanyahu on settlements to his willingness to use reconciliation to pass health care to his willingness to push nuclear disarmament, the past several months have shown just how much it matters that Obama, not Hillary Clinton, won the 2008 Democratic primary. In his calm, even-tempered, self-consciously non-threatening way, Obama is proving far more of a gambler than many expected six months ago. He’s proving more willing to confront traditional centers of power—whether in the Pentagon or the American Jewish establishment—and less bound by the parameters established in the Clinton administration for what a Democratic president could safely do.

It’s too early to know whether he’ll succeed in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next summer. But it’s fascinating that he’s even willing to try.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, will be published by HarperCollins in June. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.