FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama Steps on the Pentagon Escalator

Marmaris, Turkey.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in any foreign policy is the temptation to shape it according to the dictates of domestic politics. This seduction corrupts the synthesis of a sensible grand strategy as well as the formulation of sound military strategies. Although the temptation afflicts all nations, recent history has shown the United States to be dangerously prone to seeing and acting on the world through the disorienting lens of domestic politics. One need only recall Bush’s asinine grand-strategic assessment that the terrorists hate us, because they hate our way of life, to realize how dangerously misleading this kind of self referencing can become.

Bush’s inward focus was no anomaly, however. One of JFK’s most successful campaign tactics in presidential campaign of 1960, for example, was his phoney allegation of a missile gap between the Soviet Union and the United States, when in fact he knew the opposite was the case. JFK’s reckless campaign rhetoric unnecessarily intensified the cold war and reinforced militarists in both political parties. No doubt, his “bear any burden” rhetoric encouraged an atmosphere that helped to pave the way to Vietnam.

Ronald Reagon played the same game in 1980, with the same effects, using a phoney assertion of a “window of vulnerability,” together with equally spurious claim that the so-called hollow military of the Carter years was the product of budget cuts made by Democrats, when in fact the hollow military was a self-inflicted wound created by a perverse pattern of decision making within the Pentagon. The success of Reagan’s gambit intensified the Cold War in the early 1980s and launched an unprecedented “peacetime” spending spree that not only did not fix the Pentagon’s decision making pathologies, but put the US defense budget on a budget escalator that now can only be justified by continuing wars after the USSR had collapsed, much as George Kennan had predicted it would (i.e., due more to its internal contradictions than Reagan’s spending spree). That the continuing addiction to cold-war level defense budgets needs continuing war to justify the high spending levels can be seen clearly in the obsessive predilection toward bullying coercive diplomacy punctuated by the use of military force, especially bombing, exhibited by President Clinton and especially President George W. Bush.

Fast forward to 2008. During the last election, Candidate Barack Obama chose to attack President Bush’s catastrophically flawed grand strategy of belligerent warmongering (you are either with us or against us) by portraying Iraq, correctly in my opinion, as an unnecessary war that distracted attention away from Al Qaeda. But to shore up support from the “pro-military” parts of the democratic and independent electorates, Obama contrasted Iraq, the bad war, to Afghanistan, the good war. To that end, he pledged to draw down troops in Iraq and increase troops in Afghanistan, implicitly buying into Bush’s grand strategy of an open-ended, militarized, global war on terror — where al Qaeda remains forgotten but with the anti-Taliban war mutates into a far more dangerous anti-Pashtun war. Pointedly, Candidate Obama never called for reductions in the defense budget.

Candidate Obama’s domestic politicking is now coming back to haunt President Obama’s foreign policy and military strategy.

Specifically, Obama’s promise to focus on the “good war” is undermining his formulation of a sensible grand stategy as well as a sound military strategy, particularly with regard to the question of escalating our war in Afghanistan and intervening in Pakistan, which is clearly destabilizing Pakistan, the world’s only Muslim nation with atomic weapons.

To wit — Obama just approved an increase of 17,000 troops for Afghanistan, which is in line with his campaign promise, but far less than the 30,000 increase requested by the military. According to an unnamed source interviewed by Gareth Porter, the reason he reduced the military’s request is because the commander in Afghanistan, General McKiernan, could not tell Obama how the increased force would be used, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff could not tell him what the end-game in Afghanistan would be. In other words, the leaders of the military told Obama they have no strategy in Afghanistan, except doing more of the same, which everyone agrees is not working, and therefore, echoing the peculiar logic found in the Pentagon Papers, the military wants to redeem failure by escalating.

Rather than just saying no and telling the military to go back to the drawing board, Obama chose to make good on his campaign pledge by approving a smaller increase than requested (domestic politics), perhaps thinking he could keep his options open by buying himself a little time while he did a strategy study. However, in so doing, he bought into an admittedly strategy-free escalation decision (foreign policy), without understanding the future consequences of that decision. Straddling the fence may make sense in the context of day-to-day domestic politics, but Mr. Obama needs to understand Pentagon plays long-term bureaucratic politics, and over in Versailles on the Potomac, the stakes are high, because careers, budgets, and contracts are at stake.

Porter is right, President Obama has made a crucial mistake that could very well come back to haunt him, like the initial decision to escalate in Vietnam, made in 1965 against his better judgement, came back to haunt Lyndon Johnson. That is because, with his approval of a partial escalation in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama is now a vested party in General McKiernan’s strategy of mindlessness escalation. And Obama knows it is not good domestic politics to unring the bell. So, Mr. Obama will be under tremendous pressure and temptation to construct a strategy ex-post facto to justify his decision. Moreover, given his approval of an initial escalation, the priniciple of escalation is now an agreed-to option and he will soon learn that his credibility is at stake. You can be sure the milcrats understand this, because Front Loading decisions (i.e., getting politicos to commit to things before they understand the future consequences of their approval) has been raised a high art form in Versailles on the Potomac. It is now virtually certain the milcrats will try to use Obama’s initial escalation decision as the thin edge of the wedge to lever in a “new strategy” that will include sending even more troops into the Afghan/Paki meatgrinder.

So, is Obama repeating the mistakes of the Americans in Vietnam or the Russians in Afghanistan? General McKiernan apparently doesn’t think so, because the arrogantly dismissed analogies to the Russian experience in Afghanistan at a news conference on February 18 by saying, “There’s always an inclination to relate what we’re doing with previous nations … I think that’s a very unhealthy comparison.” Old timers, however, will remember, however, this is exactly how McKiernan’s predecessors blew off the warnings of Bernard Fall in the early 1960s, when they dismissed France’s experience in Indochina.

The sooner Obama realizes that studying and learning from past mistakes is a good idea, the easier it will be for him to jump off the Pentagon’s escalator, but he is just where the apparat wants him to be … alone. He has no George Ball in the Ms. Clinton’s State Department to act as the canary in the coal mine. And as for the dilletentes he appointed to sub-cabinet levels in Mr. Gate’s Pentagon, the milcrats know it will be far easier to roll over them that it was for their predecessors to successfully roll the best and the brightest in Mr. McNamara’s Pentagon.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

More articles by:

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

April 25, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Selective Outrage
Dan Kovalik
The Empire Turns Its Sights on Nicaragua – Again!
Joseph Essertier
The Abductees of Japan and Korea
Ramzy Baroud
The Ghost of Herut: Einstein on Israel, 70 Years Ago
W. T. Whitney
Imprisoned FARC Leader Faces Extradition: Still No Peace in Colombia
Manuel E. Yepe
Washington’s Attack on Syria Was a Mockery of the World
John White
My Silent Pain for Toronto and the World
Dean Baker
Bad Projections: the Federal Reserve, the IMF and Unemployment
David Schultz
Why Donald Trump Should Not be Allowed to Pardon Michael Cohen, His Friends, or Family Members
Mel Gurtov
Will Abe Shinzo “Make Japan Great Again”?
Binoy Kampmark
Enoch Powell: Blood Speeches and Anniversaries
Frank Scott
Weapons and Walls
April 24, 2018
Carl Boggs
Russia and the War Party
William A. Cohn
Carnage Unleashed: the Pentagon and the AUMF
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
The Racist Culture of Canadian Hockey
María Julia Bertomeu
On Angers, Disgusts and Nauseas
Nick Pemberton
How To Buy A Seat In Congress 101
Ron Jacobs
Resisting the Military-Now More Than Ever
Paul Bentley
A Velvet Revolution Turns Bloody? Ten Dead in Toronto
Sonali Kolhatkar
The Left, Syria and Fake News
Manuel E. Yepe
The Confirmation of Democracy in Cuba
Peter Montgomery
Christian Nationalism: Good for Politicians, Bad for America and the World
Ted Rall
Bad Drones
Jill Richardson
The Latest Attack on Food Stamps
Andrew Stewart
What Kind of Unionism is This?
Ellen Brown
Fox in the Hen House: Why Interest Rates Are Rising
April 23, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
In Middle East Wars It Pays to be Skeptical
Thomas Knapp
Just When You Thought “Russiagate” Couldn’t Get Any Sillier …
Gregory Barrett
The Moral Mask
Robert Hunziker
Chemical Madness!
David Swanson
Senator Tim Kaine’s Brief Run-In With the Law
Dave Lindorff
Starbucks Has a Racism Problem
Uri Avnery
The Great Day
Nyla Ali Khan
Girls Reduced to Being Repositories of Communal and Religious Identities in Kashmir
Ted Rall
Stop Letting Trump Distract You From Your Wants and Needs
Steve Klinger
The Cautionary Tale of Donald J. Trump
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Conflict Over the Future of the Planet
Cesar Chelala
Gideon Levy: A Voice of Sanity from Israel
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail