Did Obama Snub the Joint Chiefs on Afghanistan?

When President Barack Obama stepped up to the podium to deliver his fifth State of the Union Address on February 12, you could almost sense that the people inside the chamber were expecting him to announce another drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan.  Indeed,  towards the end of his speech, Obama lived up to those expectations; after outlining his vision of domestic policy for the future, he devoted just a few paragraphs to Afghanistan, most of which was dedicated to his decision to withdraw another 34,000 Americans from the war over the next year.  The chamber erupted in applause after the President uttered those words, a demonstration of just how exacerbated the US Congress has gotten about the war.

But while most of the spectators watching the speech were expecting such an announcement, there was a key group in the front-row who were in fact taken aback by the withdrawal: the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  According to a short story from Politico, the Obama administration deliberately kept the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps away from the process that eventually hashed out to the withdrawal strategy.  Said a defense official quoted in the story, “I don't think any of the chiefs knew that [withdrawal] number.”

Just because the Joint Chiefs of Staff did not know about the president’s decision does not, of course, mean that the US military was sidelined entirely.  The decision to redeploy an additional 34,000 troops out of Afghanistan was reportedly taken in line with the advice from Generals John Allen, Joseph Dunford, and James Mattis—all of whom have been intimately involved in the war’s planning.  The US military’s best professional advice, in other words, was clearly taken seriously by the White House before the ultimate decision was made.  This is precisely how civilian-military relations ought to work; opposing viewpoints are made, and when disagreements occur, they are debated within the interagency process.

Yet if the allegations in the Politico story are true, and if the Joint Chiefs really did learn about the withdrawal scheme a mere few hours before the State of the Union was given, then it may be appropriate to question whether the state of civil-military relations is truly as strong as it should be.  In contemporary US history, the White House has generally taken the advice and opinions of the chiefs into consideration during a time of conflict.  If the president and the chiefs disagreed, at least the White House listened to their concerns and recommendations before a final decision is agreed upon. 

Interestingly enough, the flak with the Joint Chiefs may be a symptom of a broader problem: the Obama administration’s desire to tightly control foreign policy through channels that are directly steered by White House advisers.  To be fair, the Obama White House is not unique in this regard, and it is perfectly acceptable for the president to run the policy process in the way he feels most comfortable.

But even with this in mind, a number of very smart and influential people have begun to raise questions about the Obama administration’s style, and whether that style is designed to deliberately keep different opinions away from the president’s desk. 

In a recent column, David Ignatius of Washington Post fame openly worries that the Obama administration is approaching groupthink on matters of serious national security consideration.  Ignatius’s concern should be taken seriously, all the more for the president’s latest appointments in the State Department, Defense Department, and White House (John Kerry and Chuck Hagel’s views of the world are in lock-step to the president’s own thinking).  Vali Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, takes the criticism to new heights in the pages of Foreign Policy, where he complains that the Obama White House is not interested in views that go against the mainstream thinking of the president’s inner-circle.  Nasr’s complains are important not only for his stellar reputation, but because he was once a part of Obama’s Af-Pak team.

The president’s decision to redeploy 34,000 American soldiers from Afghanistan over the coming twelve months seems to follow the path of a White House making a crucially important national security decision without the necessary input from the men who are ultimately responsible for the nation’s military policy—the Joint Chiefs.  Why the four most powerful men in the US military bureaucracy were not allowed the opportunity to voice their own opinions about the withdrawal—and why they were not consulted ahead of time once the decision was made—is a mystery that the administration should properly explain.  Doing so will not only mend any anger that may have been sparked, but will have the effect of strengthening the civilian-military relationship and rebuffing the perception among some very loud critics that Obama’s White House is a paranoid and introvert circle that makes decisions based on what is politically popular.

Afghanistan has been one of America’s most difficult and costly wars, full of complications and nuances.  There is no need to make the war more complicated by shutting out the service chiefs—the same people who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the force is as healthy and resilient in the post-Afghanistan world as possible.

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