As President Obama considers whether to escalate in Afghanistan, he is facing a quandary familiar to many of his wartime predecessors—deciding whether to follow the advice of the military brass or impose his independent judgment on his commanders. Making it all the more difficult is the pressure he is getting from conservatives to back the request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, for 40,000 more troops, which would increase the U.S. force level to 108,000.
Obama, who surprisingly received the Nobel Peace Prize last week, is taking his time, arguing that he wants to make the right call and avoid hasty judgments, but conservatives are urging him to immediately march in lock step with McChrystal. After a bipartisan meeting at the White House this week, Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, told reporters, "Our message was, to the president, that we stand ready to support him if he makes the right decision, and in our mind that decision . . . is to support the recommendations of our commanders in the field."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said, "General McChrystal's analysis is not only correct but should be employed as quickly as possible." McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the comparisons often made with the initial escalations in Indochina go only so far. "The closest parallel to Afghanistan today is Iraq," McCain said, adding that the military brass eventually came up with a strategy that succeeded in Iraq, and he trusts the generals to find the right answers again.
Many Democrats are leery about escalation. They fear that the war isn't winnable and that sending in more troops will plunge the United States into a quagmire like Vietnam. One of their biggest concerns is that escalation will make Afghanistan "Obama's war" and divert energy and resources from his domestic agenda.
Back in September, Obama said he planned to work with the current regime in Kabul to dismantle and destroy al Qaeda and the Taliban. He has called the Afghanistan conflict—eight years old this week—a "war of necessity" and the central front in the battle against terrorism, so to a large extent, his credibility is at stake. Amid rising U.S. and civilian casualties—869 Americans have died so far, and $300 billion has been spent—domestic support is fading. About 40 percent of Americans now favor the war, down from 44 percent in July, and 50 percent oppose it, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.
Disagreeing with the generals is never easy for a president, and this would be especially true for Obama, who has neither military experience nor academic expertise in military affairs. But history shows that sometimes presidential independence is the best course. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln fired a number of his generals when they were unable or unwilling to carry out his strategy to vigorously pursue the enemy. Most controversially, he removed Gen. George McClellan after "Little Mac" failed to move aggressively against the Confederates. The firing proved to be a wise move.
Perhaps the most famous example of a president in conflict with the military came in April 1951 when Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander of United Nations forces during the Korean War. This happened because MacArthur disagreed publicly with Truman's strategy of limited war. MacArthur wanted to greatly escalate the fighting when China entered the conflict. Truman's move turned out to be the right one because MacArthur's recommendations would have risked World War III, according to many historians.
President John F. Kennedy deferred to his military and national-security advisers during his first year in office, leading to the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. But in 1962, he overruled his hard-line commanders and ordered a blockade instead of more forceful action during the Cuban missile crisis, and the Soviets backed down.
Lyndon Johnson, on the other hand, went overboard in taking charge. He micromanaged the Vietnam War, even to the point of reviewing and selecting targets for American bombers. This absorbed too much of Johnson's time and confused and demoralized his officers.
In the end, the American system is based on civilian control of the military, whereby the president makes the final decision on wartime strategy and the Pentagon carries it out. It's a wise precept that has stood the test of time.