Politeía Digest

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Lexington: The loneliness of Barack Obama

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His domestic team is dispersing. But national security is the area where the president could use closer friends.

BOB WOODWARD’S latest fly-on-the-wall White House potboiler, “Obama’s Wars”, is among other things an essay in the loneliness of command. Having inherited a failing war, a fresh young president is bombarded on all sides by conflicting advice and has in the end to set the strategy himself, pleasing nobody. It would be a fascinating tale at any time, but it is especially poignant in present circumstances. For one reason or another, many of the advisers who have surrounded Mr Obama since he took office at the beginning of 2009 are deserting the listing ship. If he were not from the planet Vulcan (“birthers” take note) and therefore incapable of feeling emotion, he would have every reason to feel lonely right now.

Two members of his economic team—Christina Romer and Peter Orszag—have already left the White House and Larry Summers, his chief economic co-ordinator, will return to Harvard University after November’s mid-term elections. Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, is expected to announce his departure at any moment so that he can pursue his longtime ambition to become mayor of Chicago in place of Richard Daley. David Axelrod, the president’s political adviser, he of the sad eyebrows, is meanwhile reported to dislike his bachelor existence in the nation’s capital and to be keen to return to his life, his family and Manny’s deli in the Windy City. The need to prepare Mr Obama’s 2012 election campaign gives him the perfect excuse.

The president has so far taken these impending departures in his stride. He will be working closely with Mr Axelrod in the presidential election, and Mr Emanuel was never a close friend anyway. Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser who is indeed close, appears to be staying, as does his press secretary Robert Gibbs, one of the original Obama team. There is, however, one departure in the works that may cause even a Vulcan some worry. The thought provoked by Mr Woodward’s book is that the loss of Robert Gates, the defence secretary, may damage Mr Obama most of all.

Mr Gates served as George Bush’s defence secretary but agreed to stay on to provide continuity in the Iraqi and Afghan wars and the war on terrorism. Keeping a Republican CIA veteran at the Pentagon was an inspired decision by a president acutely conscious of his own lack of security experience. But politics can be cruel. The presence of Mr Gates has not prevented “ownership” of the failing Afghan war from shifting rapidly to Mr Obama. All presidents eventually own the wars America fights on their watch, whether they started them or not. What is special about Afghanistan is that Mr Obama rejected both of the big ideas his subordinates promoted in the great hand-wringing review the White House conducted in the autumn of 2009. Instead, he constructed a compromise, in which, if Mr Woodward is to be believed, only he has confidence.

The big idea that bubbled up through the chain of command was a long-haul counter-insurgency campaign. The opposing idea from Joe Biden, the vice-president, was “counterterrorism-plus”: keep only enough force in, near and above Afghanistan as needed to prevent al-Qaeda returning from Pakistan, which should in fact be the focus of American policy. In the end, eager as he was to find an exit from a war his own party hated, Mr Obama rejected the Biden plan. But nor, quite, did he accept the generals’. He sent 30,000 new troops, not the 40,000 General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan wanted, and according to Mr Woodward insisted to his commanders that “this is not a nationwide counter-insurgency strategy”, because the public would not accept a plan that could cost up to $1 trillion and break the budget. He also wanted the troops to start leaving by July 2011.

Was this a brilliant compromise or a refusal to take a hard decision? The answer may not come until the withdrawal is due to begin next summer. By then, however, Mr Gates could well have quit. He says that he might depart in 2011, but has not said whether he will stay until the fateful deadline. He may not relish being stuck in a new fight between the president and his generals. Read More in The Economist.


Written by Theophyle

October 4, 2010 at 11:17 am

2 Responses

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  1. Lexington: The loneliness of Barack Obama…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

    World Wide News Flash

    October 4, 2010 at 2:26 pm

  2. […] P.S. postari noi. Pe Bibliophyle: Umberto Eco: Stăpânul listelor si pe Politeia Digest: Lexington: The loneliness of Barack Obama […]

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