- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 29, 2009

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was famous for being able to give people on all sides of a policy dispute the impression that he supported each person’s position. Such artfulness helped him manage domestic politics for 12 years in the presidency.

Similarly, President Obama wrote in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”

All politicians - indeed all people - permit such ambiguous perceptions of themselves from time to time. But for presidents, it is vital that such ambiguities support, not undermine, their policy objectives. And, as important articles in The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper last weekend disclosed, there is major confusion at the highest levels over what the president’s policy is in Afghanistan.

The confusions as to intentions, strategies and exit timing started immediately after the president’s Dec. 1 speech, and has gotten dangerously worse in the ensuing month. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chairman of Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and the top generals all said that we were there to win and that the July 2011 exit date was conditional on whether enough had been accomplished by then.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, adviser David Axelrod, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the president all indicated July 2011 was real, and senior White House sources said “winning” was not an objective.

In an extraordinary example of expository journalism on Page 1 of The Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran laid bare the shockingly different understandings of the Afghan mission held by the White House and the Pentagon (see “Civilian, military planners have different views on new approach to Afghanistan,” The Post, Saturday).

There are three broad areas of “misunderstanding.” First, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal believes he is allowed to build up Afghan troop levels to 400,000. The president’s objective is 230,000. With 400,000, we would be at about the minimal total troop level that the Army and Marine manual says is required to win a counterinsurgency war.

Second, the July 2011 drawdown (exit) date has lead military commanders to accelerate pace of operations to attain victory quicker, while the White House sees it as intended to “narrow” the scope of operations.

So ragged are the communications between the White House and the military that, according to The Post: “a senior administration official said the National Security Council [in the White House] is discussing ways to increase monitoring of military and State Department activities in Afghanistan to prevent ‘overreaching.’ ”

That is a more tactful way of saying the president and his team do not trust the military chain of command (nor the secretary of state’s communication chain) to accurately report to the president what they are doing.

Are the military and State Department being insubordinate? Or is the White House unjustifiably untrusting of the military and State chains of command? Either alternative is unacceptable and needs to be corrected immediately.

Third, the objective of the mission is badly divergent between the White House and the military. According to The Post: “The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence” (which sounds like a formula for the government of Hamid Karzai to fall to the Taliban once we leave). The White House expressly instructed Gen. McChrystal not to use the term “Defeat the Taliban.”

Yet when Mr. Gates subsequently visited Kabul, the defense secretary told the military personnel that “we are in this thing to win.” The Pentagon later explained that use of the word “win”: “From a moral perspective, when you ask soldiers and families to sacrifice, we do that to win. We need to be able to articulate winning.” Or as I argued in a column a few months ago, it is heartless to ask a solider “to die for an exit strategy.”

However, regarding the ambiguity of the July 2011 deadline, a senior Democratic staff member in Congress told The Post: “Is the surge a way of helping us leave more quickly, or is the timeline a way to help win support for the surge? Which is the strategy and which is the head fake? Nobody knows.”

A senior officer is quoted in the article saying they “don’t know if this is all over in 18 months, or whether this is just a progress report that leads to minor changes. Until they tell us otherwise, we’re operating as if the latter is the policy.”

Well, perhaps some officers think that, but several of the troops I have either talked to directly or heard from indirectly say they assume we are short timers - and they have no desire to be the last guys to die in a losing war.

Strategic ambiguity is useful when confounding the enemy. It is worse than dangerous, and should be promptly rectified, when it confuses and dispirits the president’s own generals and troops - while unintentionally encouraging the enemy to fight on.

Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public-relations firm in Washington.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide