April 1, 2009  

Transition Strategy: Tread carefully

How Obama’s team can avoid political minefields

President Barack Obama must insulate his defense policy from political strife. He came into office riding a tidal wave of popularity, but his lack of national security experience still leaves some anxiety in the national security community and Congress. Moreover, missteps in handling defense issues can empower his opponents, some of whom will delight at keeping him in the quagmire of controversy. The reappointment of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the presence in the West Wing of retired Marine Gen. James Jones have lessened this anxiety, but the new president needs to avoid the political minefields that could get him bogged down in the urgent instead of the important.

First, he will have to avoid missteps in Iraq. With his advisers split over accelerating the pullout or taking the “go slow” advice of field commanders, the Iraq troop withdrawal timetable is likely to be one of his most important early decisions. The president’s new team will have to solve this problem, looking at all options, and avoiding the creation of problems on the ground in Iraq. The speed of our withdrawal should not jeopardize security in Iraq or our long-term strategy toward the region.

While the media focus is on the timing of the pullout, the president should shift the administration’s focus to assessing our long-range relationship with Iraq. It will be essential to define our relationship and plan for a balanced approach that includes a vibrant advisory and security assistance effort. U.S and Iraqi leaders — not to mention those in Iran — must not believe that the U.S. is “leaving Iraq” when its combat troops come home. Reaffirming our long-term relationship with Iraq should be a top priority for the new administration.


Second, the Obama administration should take the long view on Afghanistan. The Bush administration has planned a well-intentioned surge in Afghanistan, but that will only stop the bleeding. To restore the patient to full health, the Obama administration needs a long-term strategy that is closely coordinated with its strategy toward Pakistan. The guts of that strategy must be to empower the Afghan government to stand on its own feet and ultimately take charge of both the war and the nation-building effort. It must encompass all instruments of government and improve coordination with the international community.

Nearly all of our well-intentioned ideas to help Afghanistan have been about doing things for Afghanistan, not helping them do things for themselves. Unless the Obama administration is careful, more aid to Afghanistan could prolong this dysfunctional trend. To get to endgame in Afghanistan, the coalition must build up the key Afghan ministries and strengthen the national government. It should especially avoid quick fixes, such as forming local militias or making local truces, if they diminish the authority of the central government. The development of new long-term strategies that emphasize capacity-building and coalition approaches must be top priority activities for the Obama team.

Coalition support for Afghanistan was a bright spot that has begun to fade. Except for Great Britain, Canada and a few others, our NATO allies need to be poked hard over their anemic performance in Afghanistan, a commitment they made voluntarily.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary-general, criticized the alliance in The Washington Post: “NATO, too, needs a more cohesive approach. Our operations are still too much of a patchwork, with individual countries assigned to specific geographic areas. … We should have more common approaches to our efforts, including fewer geographic restrictions on where forces can go in support of each other.” He went on to call for more attention to comprehensive approaches that combine military means with reconstruction and stabilization operations.

NATO’s continental powers know that they are not pulling their weight and that their contributions to the war effort will be put under the microscope at NATO’s 60th anniversary summit in April. Obama must hold their feet to the fire, respecting their sovereignty but pushing them to live up to the alliance’s collective commitment. If he doesn’t, he will hear from his critics in Congress.

‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’

Third, the Obama team needs to avoid entanglement over the issue of gays in the military. In the Clinton administration, the new team saw this primarily as a civil rights issue and ran afoul of military sensibilities and, more importantly, Congress. This is an area where the U.S. Constitution’s Article II commander-in-chief power collides with Congress’ Article I power to make regulations governing the armed forces. In the Clinton years, Congress won the wrestling match and enshrined the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy into law. For years, this law was regarded by moderates as the worst solution in the world, except for all of the others. In the past decade, however, there have been indications that opinion inside and outside of the military has shifted in favor of a more liberal regime. The Democrats have embraced the need for change, but the Obama administration needs to prevent this contentious personnel issue from sucking the life out of its defense policy.

To square this circle, the Obama team needs to move with all deliberate prudence. They will have to get buy-in from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Defense secretariat and Congress. The Obama team will also have to assess support among the troops for ending the current approach to the issue. Finally, if they decide to change the rule, the Obama team will have to craft conceptual rules for troop privacy so that the privacy of heterosexual service members is not disadvantaged by policy changes. Once that is done, the president could use the modification of “don’t ask, don’t tell” as part of his call for national service. In particular, he should use the modification of this policy as a lever to shame the Ivy League universities into letting vibrant, well-supported ROTC programs back on to their college campuses.


Fourth, the Obama team needs to avoid a detainee interrogation witch hunt that could damage bipartisanship and alienate national security professionals. The criticism of Guantanamo, Abu Gharib, and the aggressive interrogation of unlawful combatants has reached a fever pitch. However, there are many extenuating circumstances that are not often mentioned by the activists and legislators who are eager to hang members of the Bush administration or even individual agents or interrogators. Many of the alleged abuses were done under unique circumstances not anticipated by laws that existed at that time. The interrogations were done after Sept. 11, under the umbrella of supportive legal opinions from the Justice Department, and often with the knowledge of key leaders in the Congress. While it is clear now that many of these legal opinions were faulty or not supported by the judiciary in subsequent court cases, it will be very difficult to punish soldiers and intelligence personnel in the future for doing what they had been told was legal in the past. While an assessment of Bush administration policies is warranted, if it becomes a vendetta against agents, interrogators or former senior officials, it will become highly partisan and compromise future national security policy.

To solve the detainee problems, the Obama administration needs to repair or replace the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to enable the armed forces or civil authorities to try war criminals. The president already has extended the dictates of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 to all U.S. government agencies, ensuring in the future that no U.S. soldier, interrogator or agent will ever be confused as to what are or are not legal interrogation techniques. Having ended the CIA’s authority to operate secret prisons, Obama should also end the policy of rendition — the nonjudicial extradition of suspects to other countries where aggressive interrogation techniques may be practiced. This policy began in the Clinton administration and has outlived whatever usefulness it may have had. Finally, the administration will have to negotiate the delicate task of housing somewhere in the U.S. the prisoners who can’t be repatriated or who are awaiting trial. Sadly, many proponents of closing the facility in Cuba have shown a not-in-my-backyard attitude when it comes to disposing of prisoners who cannot be repatriated.

The closing of Guantanamo and the repatriation of most prisoners — likely to take longer than the year noted by the administration — must be done with the full knowledge that more than 60 released detainees have again taken up arms against the U.S. and its coalition partners. In the latest discovery, two al-Qaida operatives released to Saudi Arabia and allegedly rehabilitated there have been identified in The New York Times and on al-Qaida videos. One of them is the deputy head of al-Qaida in Yemen. Detainee releases are not just humanitarian and judicial issues. If these releases are done improperly, they will put U.S. and allied lives at risk. Political strife will follow.

Budget cuts

Fifth, on the fiscal front, if at all possible, the Obama team should avoid deep and rapid cuts to the defense budget which can hurt readiness and program stability. Right now, the U.S. faces a conundrum. On the one hand, it needs large defense expenditures to prosecute wars, repair the force and modernize. On the other hand, our national budget deficits are out of control. In a year or two, the federal government will have to retrench and, as it seeks targets for cuts, it will realize that the weight of entitlements — Social Security, Medicare, etc. — on the federal budget means that cutting discretionary spending, especially defense expenditures, will be mandatory if the Obama team wants to work quickly against the deficit.

To the extent that he must, Obama needs to bring the defense budget down slowly and purposefully. Deep cuts in a short period of time will hurt people, destroy readiness and ignite partisan strife. Deep cuts in defense can also hurt the president’s efforts to stimulate the economy. The new administration can expect Congress to take a proprietary interest in military readiness. Deep, precipitous cuts in the defense budget will spark bipartisan resistance to the administration’s moves.

To dampen the level of political strife, the Obama team — in close consultation with experts in Congress — will have to establish priorities for the defense establishment. The president cannot choose between readiness for small wars or big ones. The armed forces will have to be ready to succeed in battle across the spectrum of conflict and in the post-conflict environment. The president’s priorities should favor capabilities that enhance our chance for success in any conflict, small or large, regular or irregular. Well-trained people, good intelligence, air and sealift, unmanned aerial vehicles and well-maintained combat systems should be on the top of his priority list. His proposals will have to strike a balance between readiness, repair and modernization, but some new acquisitions will have to be canceled and others procured in lesser quantities.

The key to being able to strike this balance is to change the way that we do business. The tyranny of the experts and service cultures favors programs that maximize U.S. control, are huge in scale and emphasize the high-technology side of the military instrument. Often, defense industry and selected members of Congress line up with the services to support programs that are less than optimal. Obama and his Cabinet need to force the bureaucracy to find new solutions to common problems.

There are many techniques to do this. At home, with the participation of Congress, they can use expert “red teams” to assess service recommendations and programs. Abroad, instead of a U.S. lead, we should cultivate leadership from a host nation or regional allies. The model there would be Australia’s expert management of the opening phase of operations in 1999 in East Timor. In situations short of war, we can use U.S. economic power and logistical capabilities, such as airlift, to back up a U.N. or regional force. Where feasible, in place of large-scale U.S. expeditionary forces, we could make maximum use of military advisory groups to help friends and allies. Over time, resources and burdens can be shifted. Stronger, better-supported diplomatic and developmental tools will allow us to make greater inroads on conflict prevention while helping us reduce the burden on military forces.

The security environment and the president’s campaign each promise us that the years to come will be years of change. To succeed under such constraints, the Obama national security team will have to prioritize, think creatively and avoid the political minefields that surround contentious defense issues. Congress must be a full partner in these efforts. Early in the Civil War, in circumstances even more dire than our own, Lincoln left us words whose spirit should guide the new administration’s actions:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” AFJ

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army colonel, teaches strategy at the National War College. From 2001 to 2004, he was the deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army, Defense Department or U.S. government.