Tom Donilon and Obama’s War with the Pentagon

The clash between the White House and the military brass over the Afghan war will grow more intense under the new national security advisor. Peter Beinart on the knife fight ahead.

Barack Obama talks with Joe Biden, Gen. David Petraeus, Def. Sec. Robert Gates, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen on June 23, 2010. (Photo: Pete Souza / The White House)

The clash between the White House and the military brass over the Afghan war will grow more intense under the new national security adviser. Peter Beinart on the knife fight ahead.

James Jones is out as national security adviser; Tom Donilon is in. What does it mean? Among other things, that we may be headed for one of the greatest civilian-military showdowns in decades.

If you haven’t read Bob Woodward or Jonathan Alter’s accounts of Obama administration Afghan policy, here are the CliffsNotes: Since the moment Obama took office, the military, led by David Petraeus, has been pushing for a full-on counterinsurgency effort. In other words, a lot of troops for a very long time. Obama, from the start, has resisted, raising awkward questions about why we’re expending massive amounts of blood and treasure in Afghanistan when Pakistan is the country that really matters. Vice President Biden has gone further, warning that given the mind-boggling corruption of Hamid Karzai’s regime, committing to an Afghan counterinsurgency war would be lunacy.

This policy struggle has not been waged according to the Marquis of Queensbury rules. The White House believes the military brass is blind to America’s crushing financial constraints and the public’s eroding support for the war. The military believes the White House cares more about domestic politics than national security. The White House believes the military keeps screwing the president by telling reporters and Republicans that we need more troops for a longer time, thus forcing Obama’s hand.

Obama wants someone who will help him wind down America’s Afghan adventure, no matter how hard he has to fight Petraeus and company to do it.

General Jones was chosen, in part, because Obama knew this fight was coming. He wanted someone who could communicate with the generals and keep them from knifing him in the back. Jones didn’t entirely succeed in that effort, which is one reason people in the White House never embraced him as one of their own. But if Jones was unable or unwilling to extinguish the flames of civil-military conflict, Donilon is the political equivalent of dousing them with gasoline.

John Avlon: The 15 Craziest Senate CandidatesFrom the military’s perspective, Donilon is worse than a mere civilian; he’s a politico. He was a party operative before he was a foreign policy wonk, which is one reason he worked so well with Rahm Emanuel, the man who pushed Jones to hire him as his deputy. At the White House, Donilon’s political savvy was considered an asset. But within the military, his prominence was seen as evidence that the White House subordinated national security to crass political concerns. Throughout Woodward’s book, Obama’s Wars, Donilon makes cameos as the guy who screams at generals for trying to trick or push Obama into a deeper commitment to Afghanistan than he wants to make. Less than a month after Obama took office, according to Woodward, Donilon berated military leaders for pushing for an increased troop commitment without having solid numbers on how many they really needed. That fall, after Stanley McChrystal told a London audience that anything but a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy would be a disaster, Donilon flayed members of the military brass once again, further alienating his counterparts at the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to Woodward, warned against making Donilon NSC advisor. Jones told Donilon that “you have no credibility with the military” and warned him to stop mouthing off to generals about topics he knew little about.

Now that he’s NSC adviser, Donilon will surely try to mend fences. But his conflicts with the military aren’t simply about good manners. And they are not merely a product of the culture clash between liberal civilians and military types that typically plagues Democratic administrations. They have their roots in a profound disagreement over policy. Donilon, after all, is a Biden guy. He worked on Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign, worked for him in the Senate, and then worked on his 2008 campaign. His wife is Jill Biden’s chief of staff. Biden is the administration figure most determined to limit the Afghan war and the figure who most prides himself on not being intimidated by generals. And there is evidence that Donilon shares his views. At one point in Obama’s “AfPak” review, according to Woodward, Donilon bolstered Biden’s contention that the Taliban, as opposed to Al Qaeda, poses no real threat to the United States. According to Politico, Donilon has been a strong defender of the summer 2011 deadline for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops that Obama laid out when he announced the Afghan surge.

From the moment Obama made that announcement, the military brass has been undercutting it, suggesting that if America hasn’t turned the tide against the Taliban by next summer, the troops will stay. With his decision to simultaneously surge and announce a withdrawal deadline, Obama essentially deferred last year’s civilian-military showdown until next year. And assuming that the tide in Afghanistan hasn’t turned—which is a pretty safe bet—the showdown is likely to be brutal, especially with Petraeus now directly running the Afghan war, and therefore even more invested in showing that the counterinsurgency doctrine on which he made his reputation can work there.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama chose Donilon because he’s already the guy who makes the trains run on time. But it’s also possible that he chose him because Obama knows that he is headed for a bureaucratic knife fight over Afghanistan, and in that internal struggle, he no longer wants someone like Jones who plays both sides. Instead, he wants someone who will help him wind down America’s Afghan adventure, no matter how hard he has to fight Petraeus and company to do it. If that’s true, promoting Donilon may be the most important foreign policy pick Obama has yet made. Because unless Obama begins to extricate the U.S. from the Afghan war next year, it will swallow his foreign policy, and perhaps his presidency itself.

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 is The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.