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Afghanistan: How the War Hawks Caged Obama

How a desire for bipartisanship and peace within his own party led Obama to appoint a hawkish cabal that pushed him to a renewed war in Afghanistan.

Two of President Barack Obama's most acclaimed Cabinet appointments -- keeping Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates and picking former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State -- set the risky course that his administration is following toward a military escalation in Afghanistan.

According to a variety of press accounts, Gates and Clinton proved to be a powerful tandem urging a more hawkish approach to the Afghan War and lending crucial political support to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for tens of thousands of additional troops.

Gates and Clinton more than counterbalanced the more dovish recommendations from Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan who warned about increasing Afghan government dependence on American forces.

So, as Obama prepares to unveil a plan expected to send about 30,000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan -- pushing the U.S. total to about 100,000 or roughly double the size of the U.S. force there when President George W. Bush left office -- it looks in retrospect as if the Gates-Clinton appointments a year ago effectively baked in this decision.

Though Washington's conventional wisdom remains enamored of those two "Team of Rivals" appointments – and especially the bipartisan appeal of the Gates selection -- it is increasingly apparent that warnings from the Democratic rank-and-file about the need to make a clean break with Bush-era warmongering carried some real-life wisdom.

Instead, Obama went with war-time "continuity" and bipartisanship in keeping Gates and U.S. Central Command Gen. David Petraeus. By doing so, Obama ensured that the "surge" escalation strategy that Gates and Petraeus sold in Iraq would be repackaged for Afghanistan.

In April, Obama further locked in the escalation by allowing Gates to fire Gen. David McKiernan as commander in Afghanistan, and replace him with McChrystal, a Petraeus favorite who had led the ruthless "war on terror" special operations under Bush. McKiernan was regarded as insufficiently aggressive and supposedly lacking the charisma and press savvy of Petraeus and McChrystal.

While Obama basked in some praise from neoconservative editorialists for these national security personnel selections – and for dispatching about 20,000 more troops to Afghanistan in the spring -- the president was outflanking himself. That is, assuming he really had any serious notion of pursuing a more diplomatic and less militaristic approach to Afghanistan.

A Dire Report

McChrystal, the new Afghan-theater commander, next prepared a dire report demanding 40,000 more troops to avert defeat. Reflecting the press savvy of these war hawks, the report was promptly leaked, touching off demands from Republicans and right-wing news outlets that Obama stop "dithering" and give his field commanders what they wanted.

Biden and Eikenberry put up a rear-guard battle against the proposed escalation, but they only seemed to have succeeded in giving Obama enough political space to scale back the troop commitments, which Obama announced in a speech to West Point cadets last week.

The escalation, which is intended to set the stage for a major U.S. offensive into Taliban-dominated Helmand Province, will surely increase U.S. casualties in Afghanistan -- now exceeding 925 dead. The escalation also will drain scarce resources from the U.S. Treasury at a time when Republicans are attacking Obama's social agenda as too expensive.

So, Obama's much-hailed political strategy of building a "Team of Rivals" is revealing its dark underbelly: Powerful rivals can maneuver you into a corner that ultimately undermines your goals and promotes their own.

A President still could battle out of the corner, but not without paying a high political price, especially if the rivals engage in strategic leaking to their friends in the press and thus make the President look as bad as possible. Theoretically, a President also could fire these insubordinate rivals, but that would carry severe political costs, too.