At a time of continuing economic crisis in the U.S. and around the world, President Obama’s administration has amassed a record of successes in national security. Irrespective of controversies over some of the policies, Obama has pursued perceived threats in a broadened, borderless drone war; engaged in a NATO war to protect civilians in Libya; and is on the verge of ending one ground war and planning to wind down another even longer one. But this is just not good enough for some conservatives, who insist on portraying Obama as a stereotypical lily-livered liberal afraid to indefinitely continue large-scale U.S. military commitments abroad. The chosen line of attack relies on the now–commonplace trope that Obama doesn’t listen to his generals when formulating his security strategies.
The latest salvo in this assault comes from neoconservative legacy Fred Kagan, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Kagan concludes a Weekly Standard piece — “The President & the Generals” — by writing:
Under no circumstances should the president of the United States ever take an important military decision simply because a uniformed officer has recommended it. But, when the president does overrule his commanders, he had better have an extremely good reason not only to reject their advice but to prefer his own wisdom. And if he finds himself doing it repeatedly, he would do well to consider what the source of the problem really is.
Given most of the Republican presidential field’s shaky understanding of civilian control of the military, Kagan’s “under no circumstances” caveat is welcome. Nonetheless, Kagan’s implication here is obvious: the real “source of the problem” is Obama himself. Kagan, then, would do well consider for himself that there’s been another overarching problem affecting government decisions over the past three years: a financial crisis of epic proportions that has, is, and will likely continue to bear on decisions made by a commander-in-chief, though, crucially, not on commanders on the ground. And while military commanders are charged with making tactical recommendations and informing on military strategy, the president decides the country’s overall national security strategy, a concept Kagan seems to have overlooked.
Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who, in 2010, won AEI’s prestigious Kristol Award, hinted at such disparity between the purviews of a president and his generals when he explained the chain-of-command at a confirmation hearing to his current post atop the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus, at the time the top U.S. military officer for Afghanistan, said:
[A]t every level of the chain of command above me there are additional considerations, and each person above me, all the way up to and including the president has a broader purview and broader considerations that are brought to bear. The president alone [is] in the position of evaluating all those different considerations, including certainly those of the commander on the ground but also many others as well in reaching his decision.
Petraeus lamented that he wasn’t getting everything he wanted from a military standpoint, but acknowledged that he was “talking about small differences” and that the situation was “understandable in the sense that there are broader considerations beyond just those of a military commander.” He went on to say that no military commander gets everything they want:
The fact is that there has never been a military commander in history who has had all the forces he would like to have. Or all the time. Or all the money. Or all the authorities. Or, nowadays, all the bandwidth.
So, if Obama “finds himself [making different decisions than his generals] repeatedly,” that isn’t quite the extraordinary situation Kagan posits.