Friday, November 13, 2009

"Everybody Ought To Shut Up"

Though the Obama campaign was famous for its imperturbability and also its discipline when it came to dealings with the media, the Obama White House's private deliberations about an important national security question are essentially being conducted in public as weekly and sometimes daily stories are leaked purporting to represent the mind of the President and his advisers. If this is by design as far as the White House is concerned, it doesn't appeal to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, former director of the CIA and a former NSC adviser in his own right. On a flight to Wisconsin yesterday, Gates said he was appalled by the leaking and hinted he would fire Pentagon leakers if he finds them (Who you gonna call?: The Plumbers). He added, "Everybody ought to just shut up."

The New York Times, which reported Gates' outburst, is also carrying this story, in which we learn that the ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Army Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, sent a cable to Washington opposing sending more U.S. troops, as requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, for fear that the Afghan regime will become too dependent on the U.S. for security. It seems likely that Eikenberry, who has advanced degrees from Stanford and Harvard, is remembering the deepening of South Vietnam's dependency on the U.S. that occurred after President Ngo Dinh Diem was murdered with our acquiescence in 1962 and President Johnson massively escalated our military involvement in 1965.

As we already know, Vietnam is also on the mind of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. The Times article hints that McChrystal took Eikenberry to the woodshed, getting him to soften his stance in subsequent cables. During a meeting in Kabul, according to the Times:

General McChrystal did not refer to the cable directly, but specifically challenged General Eikenberry’s conclusions, according to one official familiar with the meeting. General McChrystal, he said, said that no alternatives had been offered besides “the helicopter on the roof of the embassy,” a reference to the hasty American withdrawal from Saigon in 1975.

It's a pregnant analogy. It suggests that McChrystal fears another U.S. humiliation if we withdraw hastily and also, knowing the ruthlessness of the Taliban, that he has a pretty good idea of the fate that would likely befall anyone in Afghanistan associated with the U.S. intervention. Obviously Obama wants to avoid both that outcome as well as the kind of lavish, open-ended commitment that would essentially turn Afghanistan into a U.S. protectorate. All the news accounts make clear that this is the line he's trying to walk.

It's a fascinating challenge for a President: Believing he has the opportunity to make a discerning decision that takes Vietnam's lessons into account without being obsessed with them. One lesson he should not neglect is Lyndon Johnson's own unavailing efforts to control a fluid and unpredictable military and political environment by his daily micromanagement of the Vietnam war. Once Obama finishes agonizing, he had better get out of the way.

As I've said before, I'm glad Obama is taking his time on the policy reappraisal. But Gates is right about the leaks. They are beginning to make the President look silly and even weak. For instance:

At a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday...Mr. Obama picked up on General Eikenberry’s arguments about growing Afghan dependence, according to a senior official. The president, he said, was far more assertive than in previous sessions, pressing his advisers about the wisdom of four proposals for adding troops. The change in his tone, from listening to challenging, was palpable, officials said.

Next they'll be counting the number of times he arches his eyebrows. This sounds like a Biden dove trying to demonstrate to the press and public that the Clinton hawks are losing favor with the prince. Once I would've thought that someone authoritative was trying to signal what the President was really thinking, but it appears that the White House may just be incompetent, at least in this area. While Obama takes his responsibilities in this weightiest of matters seriously, those around him may not take them seriously enough to enable him to do his deciding, undeciding, and redeciding (as Ray Price used to say about RN) in private. For Presidents, Hamlet is not a good paradigm.


Paul K said...

Let's hope this statement actually occurs - it takes a strong man to push aside ego and do the right thing

"Once Obama finishes agonizing, he had better get out of the way."

Fr. John said...

Amen, PK. (Hey, another reader! Whoa! MK, PK; PK, MK.)

Unknown said...

Lucid and provocative. Keep it coming! I love your insights!