Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 30, 2009
WAR: Do You Know Me?

See, the problem with President Obama doing things like jetting off to Copenhagen to lobby for the Olympics - besides the fact that it's kind of degrading for the President to wade personally into that sort of thing - is the things he isn't doing. Now, I don't think the president has to personally do everything; a major part of the job is making decisions and delegating their implementation. Bill Clinton once remarked that the worst mistakes he made as president were all when he was tired. I prefer a president who gets a good night's sleep, gets some exercise and takes vacations to clear his head, etc; it's more important for the head of state to have good judgment and perspective than to be showy about being a workaholic.

But some parts of the job you shouldn't blow off, especially when they involve making the most serious sorts of decisions, and when you then end up procrastinating those decisions on the grounds that you need more time to figure out what to do, as witness this NY Times report about him finally preparing for a videoconference with our commander in Afghanistan today:

General McChrystal has not spoken with Mr. Obama since submitting his grim assessment of the war a month ago and has spoken with him only once in the 100 days since he took command of all American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The lack of direct communication has generated criticism and fueled suspicions of strains between the White House and Kabul.

Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, made a point of speaking with his Iraq commander roughly once a week at the height of the war there, a habit that forged a close working relationship between them even if it effectively bypassed the normal chain of command. Mr. Obama's aides said he relied on General McChrystal's advice but did not feel the need to duplicate Mr. Bush's personal engagement with battlefield generals.

Note the distinction here between the actual George W. Bush and the disengaged Bush of myth, who was supposedly uninterested in listening to his commanders in the field. But that's neither here nor there. The point is, while Obama certainly gets briefings from his senior national security people and written reports from the field, there's still a lot to be said for regular communication with the man on the ground, if you think an active war is a priority. Gordon Brown, no right-winger by any standard, doesn't sound like he's as flummoxed as Obama:

When asked on Sky News if he was prepared to commit more British troops, Brown said "we will do whatever is necessary."

Obama's delay in making up his mind about McChrystal's recommendations is a direct consequence of not keeping his finger more firmly on the pulse of the situation. Somehow, there is time for the head of the SEIU to visit the White House weekly, apparently including regular face time with the President, but not for the head of the military operation in Afghanistan. A curious set of priorities indeed.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:37 AM | War 2007-12 | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

More criticism of the process stuff, with a conclusion that's speculative.

"Obama certainly gets briefings from his senior national security people and written reports from the field . . ." Followed by:

"Obama's delay in making up his mind about McChrystal's recommendations is a direct consequence of not keeping his finger more firmly on the pulse of the situation."

Are you implying that his briefings are inaccurate? intelligence briefings are inaccurate? How do you know that talking with McChrystal would have given him any more information than the briefings? The fact is, you don't know, nor anyone else at this point, the reasons for the delay.

And it doesn't matter how many other people visit the White House personally. If he's getting regular briefings, and those briefings are accurate, then there is not necessarily any reason for personal conversations with generals.

Posted by: MVH at September 30, 2009 12:30 PM

I'm an Obama supporter and tend to side with the "left" on most issues, but I must agree with Crank-I do find it a bit disturbing that Obama has not spoken with his commander since the latter requested more troops, and I'm equally disturbed that he's only spoken with him once since taking office. First off, the President is constitutionally the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and has a particular obligation to oversee military operations as such. More important, it seems to me that war is one of the most important, and most dangerous, undertakings for a nation, and that the leader of that nation would and should be particularly concerned with its prosecution.

Its a fair point to argue that there is no evidence to suggest that the briefings the President is receiving are inaccurate or incomplete, but it seems pretty clear to me that there's something to be said for getting the information straight from the horse's mouth. McChrystal is there and has the best knowledge. Those briefing the President know neither what McChrystal nor the President deem to be important. Now, it seems unlikely that anything extraordinary will be missed, but hey no one saw the fall of the Berlin Wall coming. I don't see any particular harm in the President speaking with McChrystal more frequently. Certainly we want to avoid the President micro-managing things, but we don't want him entirely removed, either. I don't how often is the right amount, but it seems to me that once since taking office is far too few.

You could say that the President has been mostly occupied with domestic concerns, and that would be both true and fair to an extent. But it's clear that this administration has taken its international obligations seriously, and the war should be at the tip-top of the list.

Having said all that, I doubt that the President's trip to Copenhagen is the reason that he hasn't spoken to General McChrystal, and I think far too much is being made of it. With technology the way it is today, the only time the President is likely to lose to other work is the time spent trying to convince Olympic officials to bring the Olympics to Chicago, a few hours most likely. All the other "down" time abroad and in Air Force One can likely be used to do other work with all the communications technology and entourage the President likely travels with. Besides, is it such a bad thing that the President wants to bring the Olympics here? No, it's not, and as I stated above, it doesn't seem to me that it really is detracting from his other responsibilities, though the President has nevertheless been a bit negligent with the war, it appears.

Posted by: Rich at September 30, 2009 1:04 PM

"I do find it a bit disturbing that Obama has not spoken with his commander since the latter requested more troops"

It's one thing to find it disturbing, but quite another to blame the delay for it. That's my point. And the post doesn't even have the benefit of leading to an "I told you so" argument later on, because it's just a complete guess. And again, there is only a delay, no decision yet.

Posted by: MVH at September 30, 2009 1:37 PM

Your point is well taken, if a bit obvious. I expect the President will drop into Afghanistan before returning home from his Olympic lobbying trip. If his team does not see the need for him to engage on this asap they are deeply and perhaps forever in the weeds.
An aside, how small is this effort, begging for a sporting event 50%+ of the host city does not want? And how impotent does he look if the IOC sends the games to Rio?

Posted by: dave at September 30, 2009 1:42 PM

The big theme is not contacting the Generals on the ground. This limited contact is a problem with fluid situations like war zones. It would be a shame if Obama received all his information on Afganistan through sources that might have a political filter or slant attached to them.

Posted by: SOBL at September 30, 2009 2:23 PM

It seems to me like the delay is likely linked to failure to talk to his generals (though I wouldn't suggest it's linked to his trip to Copenhagen). I would hope that Obama would want to talk to his commanders on the ground before making such a decision; if that's a prerequisite for making the decision, how can delaying speaking with them NOT be postponing the decision?

Posted by: Rich at September 30, 2009 3:11 PM

Hmm, here we go again. Crank, explain this one the last guy fired every General the held an opposing opinion. So, then he could talked to the guys who agreed with his strategy. That is what you considered sound leadership? What if the President is using Gates (delegation to the Secretary of Defense) to gather information? But I guess your chief complaint is the delay in making the decision on the General recommendation for a massive troop increase. Do you think there are more factors than just approving or denying the Generals request. I just do not understand why you are trying to paint this as a yes or no issue. I bet if you asked any of the troops or their families working on their fifth or more deployment how they feel about the delay. But, your mantra when it comes to Obama is ideology not people.

Posted by: javaman at September 30, 2009 3:19 PM

"I prefer a president who gets a good night's sleep"
Now that's good comedy. Bush's vacations gave him good judgement.

"Note the distinction here between the actual George W. Bush and the disengaged Bush of myth, who was supposedly uninterested in listening to his commanders in the field."
Speaking with someone does not equal listening to them, or following their advice. You can find numerous books from 2002 on where he did not listen to them at all. This is not at all hard.

You'll also notice it paraphrases this with 'at the height of the war', with no timerange.

"A curious set of priorities indeed."
You know, you should get someone to do some research - find out how often Bush spoke to his theater commanders outside of the ambiguous time mentioned, and find out what he did weekly.
Could be interesting. But then again, it could undermine your point, so don't want to do that.

"I do find it a bit disturbing that Obama has not spoken with his commander"
You do realize that President Obama speaks to both Gates and General Petraeus daily, right? And this isn't new, countering this story.

Posted by: Dave at September 30, 2009 3:52 PM

Crank, why argue? We have Obumbler on a daily basis appeasing and showing weakness to all our adversaries around the world (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela) , while simultaneously snubbing countries friendly to us like the UK, Israel, Poland, India, Czech Republic. He has changed the rules of engagement in Afghanistan so that our troops are now handcuffed and the lefty drones ignore all this and the damage being done and can only rail about the real, but mostly imagined actions of Bush who has been gone for 8 months. Don't argue-ignore, you are not dealing with reasonable people. As is now being revealed daily, their support for the War in Afghanistan was ephemeral and dishonest. 13 months to the mid term beat down.

Posted by: dch at September 30, 2009 4:15 PM

Yes, of course I'm aware that the President speaks with Gates and Petraeus daily, and I'm not suggesting he needs to talk to McChrystal that often, either. But I do think it important that he here from his man on the ground. As I said in my previous post, McChrystal and Obama know what they think is important better than Gates and Petraeus, and moreover the situation can be better conveyed by speaking directly to the ground commander. During WWII, do you think Roosevelt spoke only to Marshall? No, surely he communicated fairly often with Eisenhower and MaCarthur (I'm sure that's spelled wrong). Obviously, this war isn't the same as WWII in terms of importance and other qualities, and I'm not suggesting that it dominate Obama's agenda the way WWII dominated Roosevelt. But the point is that there's no better substitute for hearing it straight from the horse's mouth, and speaking with your theater commander once in nine months really just doesn't seem often enough. Look, I'm not saying we should impeach Obama or even that I won't vote for him again. It's simply a gentle criticism that I think it prudent that he speak with his ground generals a bit more often.

Posted by: Rich at September 30, 2009 4:19 PM

"Mr. Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, made a point of speaking with his Iraq commander roughly once a week at the height of the war there, a habit that forged a close working relationship between them even if it effectively bypassed the normal chain of command."

And we all know how well the war progressed because of those chats.

Posted by: splinter at October 1, 2009 10:42 AM

There are 3 thing that are stressed in the military
1. Chain of Command
2. Chain of Command
3. Chain of Command

But we all know if Obama had bypassed Gates, Crank would complain this was due to his lack of knowledge of the military.

Posted by: javaman at October 1, 2009 10:58 AM

"But we all know if Obama had bypassed Gates, Crank would complain this was due to his lack of knowledge of the military."

The Chain of Command goes up, not down. Intermediate commands might refine orders, but they won't change what is actually being ordered. And if the Commander in Chief wants to speak with someone, he gets to.

Posted by: SFC B at October 1, 2009 8:22 PM

I would indeed criticize Obama if he cut the SECDEF out of the picture, but that's not what I'm suggesting, which is that also hearing directly from the guy on the ground can be useful and - more to the point - if Obama's going to insist that he's not prepared to make a decision on McChrystal's recommendation, that's a sign that perhaps he wasn't paying adequate attention to what was going on in Afghanistan. And talking to McChrystal regularly is one of the things he could have been doing but wasn't.

McKiernan had asked for more troops a long time ago; Gates had discussed a bigger number almost a year ago. It's not like this came up on Obama by surprise.

Posted by: Crank at October 1, 2009 8:26 PM

Crank,
I know you were getting the vapors over the thought of Obama adding another nickel to the deficit. How do you propose we pay for the additional troops? Do you think Obama should ask the generals for a solution to that quandary?

Posted by: Berto at October 2, 2009 5:27 PM

"We have Obumbler on a daily basis appeasing and showing weakness to all our adversaries around the world (Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela) , while simultaneously snubbing countries friendly to us like the UK, Israel, Poland, India, Czech Republic."

When it comes to foreign affairs, I love and hate the republicans. They have the right perspective: they generally adhere to realist principles, but then they apply those principles in the most simplistic way possible. They divide the world into "allies" and "enemies" - there is no such thing as being in between. Here are a couple of things I'd like to see them appreciate:

(1) It's one thing to have regional allies, such as India, Israel, to the extent that we share the same national interests. It's quite another thing automatically take their sides in their purely regional disputes. I have no problem with telling Israel, for example, that they have done their share to contribute to the problems in the Middle East.

(2) North Korea - our chief concern here is nuclear proliferation. Our goal, to the extent possible, is to get China on board on this issue - NK is in their backyard. And if not, make it clear that the US will take some low-level military operations to prevent them from doing so.

(3) Poland. Throughout US history, we have paid lip service to protecting eastern Europe, but when push comes to shove, we never do, for some very sensible reasons:

a) Apart from nuclear weapons, Russia becomes only a serious threat to the US when it takes western Europe, not eastern Europe. Notice that we condemned the USSR in their various crackdowns in eastern Europe, but we never responded militarily. Why? Because protecting eastern Europe was not worth risking an all-out war with the USSR.

b) it is very difficult to defend eastern Europe from a land invasion. Poland, in particular, is flat as a pancake. It would be extraordinarily expensive to keep sufficient troops there indefinitely. The Czech Republic and other areas are more mountainous and more amenable to defense, but see (a) above.

(4) Cuba. After the fall of the USSR, Cuba presents no national security issues for the US. I see no reason why sanctions should remain. No, they aren't a democracy, but they aren't a threat either.

(5) UK. The UK does deserve more attention by Obama. They are one of the only states in Europe willing to back the interests we share in common with military force. France is..well...France, and Germany is still afraid of its WWII shadow. It also has the right approach to the EU in terms of US interests.

Posted by: MVH at October 4, 2009 11:04 AM
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