War Stories

Grading the Candidates’ War Speeches

Obama’s was flawed; McCain’s is a bit of a fantasy.

Barack Obama and John McCain. Click image to expand
Barack Obama and John McCain

It’s a happy coincidence that Barack Obama and John McCain both gave speeches on Tuesday about Iraq and Afghanistan. The big difference between the two is that Obama views the wars as problems, while McCain pretty much does not. In short, while Obama’s analysis has some lapses and holes, at least it is an analysis; McCain’s is a bit of a fantasy.

According to some press reports of the two speeches, the candidates’ positions on Afghanistan have converged. Obama calls for sending at least two more combat brigades to the country, boosting economic aid by $1 billion, and tripling nonmilitary aid to neighboring Pakistan and guaranteeing that level for the next decade. McCain, who until now hasn’t devoted much attention to Afghanistan, calls for sending at least three more brigades, upping economic aid, and giving more of the same to Pakistan, too (though he doesn’t hint at the scope of the increase).

That does sound the same—except for one thing. Obama also calls for substantial withdrawals of troops from Iraq; some of them would be redeployed to Afghanistan. McCain does not advocate troop reductions from Iraq beyond the five surge brigades that left this month because their 15-month tours of duty were complete.

Here’s the problem: The U.S. Army is stretched so thin that, according to its own calculations, no extra combat units can be sent to Afghanistan unless the same number of units is pulled out of Iraq. There is no flexibility here. So if McCain wants to put three more brigades in Afghanistan, where is he going to get them?

Referring to Obama’s call for withdrawing troops from Iraq, McCain says, “Sen. Obama will tell you we can’t win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq.” Cute, but beside the point. Military strategy involves the application of resources to war aims. If McCain wins the White House, the first thing the Joint Chiefs will tell him is that they don’t have the resources to fulfill his war aims.

McCain has another solution for Afghanistan: Iraqification. “It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan,” McCain says. “It is by applying the tried and true principles of counterinsurgency used in the surge—which Sen. Obama opposed—that we will win in Afghanistan.”

There are a few problems with this reasoning. First, it’s premature to talk about “the success of the surge.” If the goal was to reduce casualties, it’s been a success. If the goal was to accomplish strategic objectives, pronouncements of victory are premature.

Second, it’s an exaggeration to describe the principles of counterinsurgency as “tried and true”; successful applications, throughout history, can be counted on one hand. One of those principles, however, is that effective operations must take the local context into account.

Third, on that point, it’s worth noting that the fiercest fighting in Iraq has taken place in urban neighborhoods, which have been walled off by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the counterinsurgency strategy. Petraeus has also had the benefit of an alliance of convenience with Sunni insurgents against al-Qaida jihadists, a cease-fire by the main Shiite insurgent, and a knack for buying off other insurgents not to shoot us. Much of this has been very clever and effective. Some of it has been luck. It’s unclear how much of it has relevance for Afghanistan.

Obama doesn’t have all the answers for Afghanistan, either. He says that he’ll use the two extra brigades as leverage to “seek greater contributions … from NATO allies.” Good luck on that one. NATO took command in Afghanistan two years ago on the assumption that it would be a “peacekeeping” operation. When the Taliban resumed fighting, most of them backed out or attached conditions on how, when, and where their troops can be used. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, has played good cop and bad cop to cajole “greater contributions,” with minimal results. It’s unclear how Obama would do much better.

It’s also unclear how much two or three or even four extra brigades would secure Afghanistan from the Taliban, given the sanctuary provided in the tribal areas just across the border in Pakistan. Both candidates stress the need to get Pakistan’s government to clamp down on these areas. It’s probably unrealistic to expect a mere candidate—McCain or Obama—to devise a specific plan for cleaning up the amazing mess that Bush has left in this realm.

However, McCain gets a demerit for resorting to a “tried and true” cop-out. He says he will name an “Afghanistan czar”—a “highly respected national security leader, based in the White House and reporting directly to the president.” He’ll also appoint “a special presidential envoy to address disputes between Afghanistan and its neighbors.”

A czar and an envoy—two classic enablers of executive evasion for the same war!

Czars—an energy czar, a drug czar, even President George W. Bush’s Iraq czar—have famously been devices that allow presidents to shunt responsibility to an “expert.” Envoys, on the other hand, can be helpful, even vital, as in the Middle East (under the first President Bush and President Bill Clinton), where what’s needed is someone to mediate tactical disputes and put out brushfires. We’re not at that point yet in Afghanistan and its environs. What’s needed there now is a policy. Again, that’s for presidents.

On the Iraq war, the difference between the two candidates is clear. McCain’s position: We’ve won, our enemies are on the run, we need to stay there to make them run faster. There is no talk of withdrawing any troops beyond the five surge brigades that left this month. There is no sense that the continued presence of the 150,000 remaining troops constitute a diversion from other missions, a monstrous drain on scarce resources, or an occupation force that—while very useful in some respects—enables the Iraqi government to avoid coming to grips with internal political clashes and keeps moderate neighbors from offering assistance out of a reluctance to associate themselves with us.

Nor does McCain so much as hint at a pledge not to seek “permanent bases”—a pledge that a) would go a long way toward ameliorating worries about American intentions (it is still commonly believed that we went to war strictly for the oil); and b) doesn’t even demand that much compromise, since “permanent,” taken literally, is a status that a president can safely forsake, even if he really means to stay there for many decades.

Obama’s speech on Iraq does all the things that McCain’s does not. But some passages suggest that he either underestimates the difficulties of some of his proposals or doesn’t understand their full implications.

For instance, Obama states that setting a timetable for withdrawal “pushes Iraq’s leaders toward a political solution.” Maybe, but it might also push them into their corners to prepare for the coming civil war. What if it does the latter? Will Obama postpone the departure?

Second, when he talks about redeploying combat troops, he adds that he’ll keep “residual forces” to “perform specific missions” in Iraq—going after remnants of al-Qaida, protecting the U.S. diplomats and troops that remain, and “training and supporting” Iraq’s security forces, “so long as the Iraqis make political progress.” That last phrase is a nice touch; it suggests that Obama takes the word benchmark seriously—if they make progress, we’ll continue to help them; but if they don’t, we won’t. More broadly, though, going after jihadists in Iraq is a mission that requires combat troops. A case can be made that it also involves keeping the counterinsurgency mission going, at least to some extent, because the best way to track and hunt down the jihadists is to secure the population, some of whom might then give our troops intelligence. Obama’s “residual forces” could, in other words, be a lot larger than he thinks.

On broader foreign-policy aims, McCain doesn’t say much, except to emphasize his experience and judgment. On the former, he says, “I know how to win wars,” though it’s unclear where he obtained this knowledge—certainly not from his time in Vietnam. On the latter, he stresses that he had the good judgment to support the surge, which Obama opposed. For his part, Obama has long claimed the good judgment to oppose the invasion in the first place, which McCain supported. (You pick which stance reflects wisdom.)

Obama devotes the first part of his speech to the larger issues—many of which involve rebuilding alliances to battle common threats—and he invokes as his models George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan. In recent interviews, he’s also tipped his hat to Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft, and Robert Gates. In other words, this is a traditional Realist—though, in the context of the past eight years, this brand of traditionalism marks a radical departure. Where McCain comes out along the Realist/Neocon spectrum isn’t clear. He’s taken positions, and consorted with advisers, that go both ways. Lately, he’s avoided saying one thing or another that might clarify the mystery.

In either case, both speeches indicate that the next president, whoever he is, will spend a lot of time—and really a lot of money—on foreign policy, probably more time and money than most Americans would prefer. That will be the big question: whether either of them can convince the public that it’s necessary.