Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Obama, McCain and "The National Will"

To be blunt, I have absolutely no interest in re-runs of the Vietnam war or the cultural conflicts that have emanated from it since. So I'm thrilled when Barack Obama talks about rejecting the "politics of the past." But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't learn something from it. In fact, there are very good reasons to believe that Barack Obama will be a better Commander in Chief, a smarter Commander in Chief, than the former naval officer. I've long argued that Obama is exactly what we need in our next Commander in Chief, in our next president who will have to navigate foreign and national security policy in the 21st century.

Barack set the stage for this in 2002.  Asked to speak before a rally against invading Iraq, he opened with these words:

Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an anti-war rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don't oppose all wars.

That historic speech placed Barack Obama squarely within the just war tradition.  It also created a strong contrast between the presumptive democratic and republican nominees.  But more importantly, it gave us insight into the thought process of Barack Obama and the confidence that he could be a great Commander in Chief given the unique set of problems and crises we face in the 21st century.

This may seem counterintuitive.  John McCain is older, served in the military and has been around Washington since the late 70s.  Even if these traits are considered attractive in a potential Commander in Chief, McCain has squandered them by failing to adjust to the realities of the 21st century.  In fact, McCain is trying to apply what he learned from studying the Vietnam war in the war college and force fit it upon Iraq and our national security policy:

Although McCain was held and tortured for the same cause, he never saw the situation the way Hagel did. In his view, the American effort began to turn around with the promotion in 1968 of Gen. Creighton Abrams, who adopted the tactics favored by counterinsurgency experts like Fall. Abrams pulled back the search-and-destroy teams and instead focused on winning the "hearts and minds" of South Vietnamese villagers. His goal was to encourage the South Vietnamese military to take over their own defense -- the process that came to be known as "Vietnamization." McCain maintains that Abrams's strategy was working, but it was undercut by the fact that, by that point, the American public had already rendered its verdict, and the drawdown of troops continued until the war's chaotic end.

The lesson McCain and other conservatives took away from this version of history is that America was driven from Vietnam principally because the voters, discouraged by dire reports from a skeptical media, lost their will. McCain has said in the past that he felt the war could have been won had the right strategy been followed sooner.

The problem with this analysis is that it isn't true.  The American people didn't fail our military, then or now.  There was a deliberate decision -- then as now -- not to build a broad public consensus behind the war.  When the war was brought home to the American people (as in the Tet offensive), they were unprepared, and duly shocked by it.  In fact, I'd argue that the Tet offensive represents the battle line between the conservative and liberal view of the Vietnam war.  The conservative view focuses on how we won the battle, the liberal view on how we lost the war.  But that's not my point.  Because even in 1968, public perceptions mattered -- and in 2008, their import is even more important.  In the months before John McCain was taken as a prisoner of war there was a decided attempt to affect public expectations on Vietnam:

In the latter months of 1967, after more than two years of bitter fighting in Vietnam, many Americans believed that the war had degenerated into a bloody stalemate. Gen. William Westmoreland, the senior commander, did not see it that way; by his primary metric -- the body count -- American and allied forces were making significant headway. Under criticism by the growing antiwar movement at home, President Lyndon Johnson decided to make General Westmoreland's optimism the focal point of an information campaign to convince the American people that we were winning the war.

In mid-November 1967, he brought the general home to make the case. Upon arriving at Andrews Air Force Base, General Westmoreland told waiting reporters that he was "very, very encouraged" by recent events. At an appearance on "Meet the Press" two days later, he said American troops would be able to begin withdrawing "within two years or less." During an address at the National Press Club, he claimed that "we have reached an important point where the end begins to come into view." He consistently gave an upbeat account of how things were going in the war, clearly believing that a corner had been turned.

The Tet offensive laid bare the inherent optimism of those expectations:

The Americans had won a tactical victory. But the sheer scope and ferocity of the offensive and the vivid images of the fighting on the nightly television news convinced many Americans that the Johnson administration had lied to them, and the president's credibility plummeted. Perhaps more important, the offensive shook the administration's own confidence and led to a re-evaluation of American strategy. When General Westmoreland asked for an additional 206,000 troops to "take advantage of the situation," the president balked.

Barack Obama said that he was against "dumb wars."  But what we learned from our Vietnam experience is that the American people are against bullshit.  We don't share the unit cohesion lesson embedded in the military men of the greatest generation.  So our elected leaders shouldn't try to bullshit us into going to war.

This is not a new observation.  In fact, it several centuries old.  The moment that armies started being reflections of national populations, the "National Will" became central to military success or failure.  In On Strategy, Col. Summers writes:

there was one thing that did not fit into the computer -- national will, what Clausewitz calls the moral factor.  We have seen earlier that President Johnson deliberately avoided mobilizing the national will so as not to jeopardize his Great Society programs.  The North Vietnamese, after their experience with the French, had every reason to believe that American morale could be our weak strategic link.  Knowing they did not have the military means to defeat us, they concentrated on this weakness.  It was not a new strategy.  "When we speak of destroying the enemy's forces," Clausewitz wrote, "we must emphasize that nothing obliges us to limit this idea to physical forces: The moral element must also be considered."

The failure to invoke the national will was one of the major strategic failures of the Vietnam war.  It produced a strategic vulnerability that our enemy was able to exploit.  Consider this explanation of Tet 1968, written by Clausewitz 150 years earlier:

Not every war need be fought until one side collapses.  When the motives and tensions of war are slight we can imagine that the very faintest prospect of defeat might be enough to cause one side to yield.  If from the very start the other side feels that this is probable, it will obviously concentrate on bringing about this probability rather than the long way round and totally defeat the enemy.
 pp. 18-19

It is this factor, the need to create a broad national consensus (or will) around a new national strategic framework, that drew me originally to Barack Obama.  While John McCain may mock Barack for his ability to fill large arenas (and outside venues), give a speech and hold the audience's attention, I don't really see any other way to shape public opinion or build broad consenses -- at least not in this era.  At a time when the world -- and our place in it -- is undergoing a gut-wrenching transformation, the ability to draw an audience for one's ideas is not a secondary consideration.  It's a primary one, and it is one that clearly makes Barack Obama a stronger candidate in terms of who will be the better Commander in Chief.

The problem with McCain, though, is not that he can't give good speech.  It's that he doesn't see the need.  For McCain, there is nothing that can't be solved by his leadership.  McCain blamed American politics for our failure in Vietnam.  But Summers viewed it it differently:

The main reason it is not right to blame the American public is that President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people -- to invoke the national will -- for the Vietnam war.  p. 12

If this feels familiar (even though the neo-cons go apolectic from comparisons to Iraq and Vietnam), it should.  George Bush called for the American people to "stand against terror by going back to work," and to "Get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed."  No sacrifice, no mobilization, no appeal to the national will to get behind the fight against terror.  Return to normal, Bush advised.  Go shopping (this was actually said by Jeb Bush, not George).

George Bush and John McCain have tried to force the national will in their direction by appealing to our fears, not giving us direction.  In doing so, even though they went in the opposite direction as LBJ, they made the same mistakes that we had made in Vietnam.  Summers wrote, "If the Army is to be used wisely, the American people should have some idea of military strategy." (p. x iii)  Yet if there was an explanation about why we should be in Iraq, it was centered around the misguided attempt to find WMDs (which would have been better suited to the Hans Blix or the IAEA) or the neo-con program of imposing democracy elsewhere.  John McCain insists that we stay in Iraq, but for what reason, other than friendship, he's not clear about why.  "We have incurred a moral responsibility in Iraq," he says.  "It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation, if we were to walk away from the IraqI people."  And yet:

[War] requires for its successful pursuit the mobilization of a moral consensus of the legitimacy of both the objectives of violence and the means by which these objectives are pursued.  (Chaplain (Colonel) Charles F. Kriete; quoted in On Strategy, p. 34)

One need not be a Clausewitzian to see how important the our political leaders take the American people into their confidence about our national security policy, its goals and the means we will use to attain them.  Even Jomini agreed:

but it is the morale of armies, as well as of nations, more than anything else, which makes victories and their results decisive.  pp. 162-63

Yet McCain does not do this.  He talks of honor and moral responsibility, not objectives or strategic goals.  What is to be achieved by our presence in Iraq?  George Bush and John McCain cannot tell you.  They prefer to force upon us a gut check.  Strangely, this John McCain does seem to remember the old John McCain:

"The biggest factor in a man's ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation's foreign policy," Mr. McCain wrote in a 1974 essay submitted to the National War College and never released to the public. Prisoners who questioned "the legality of the war" were "extremely easy marks for Communist propaganda," he wrote.

Americans captured after 1968 had proven to be more susceptible to North Vietnamese pressure, he argued, because they "had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the antiwar movement in the United States."

To insulate against such doubts, he recommended that the military should teach its recruits not only how to fight but also the reasons for American foreign policies...

Hell, at least those who shared cells with McCain in north Vietnam had the domino theory to hang their hat on.  Is John McCain really going to try to tell us that "Iraq is the central front" to the war on al-Qaeda?  Not even our fighting men and women in the military believe that.  As Capt. Collins writes:

America is now engaged in three undeclared wars. The first, the Global War on Terror, has no nation-state or regime as its target. It has become a nebulous mix of security assistance to an odious jumble of nations and murky intelligence operations.  Some of these operations have resulted in detentions on questionable legal ground called renditions. In Yemen, the war has also resulted in at least one incident of the ultimate international relations taboo, assassination. The second war, against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, has settled into a long-term peacekeeping and nation building expedition with a hodgepodge of UN, NATO, and NGOs working with, or at least, adjacent to, a US-led coalition.  The third, in Iraq, has become one of the largest counter-insurgencies in American history, fought by a "Coalition of the Willing." It would appear that the era of the declared war has come to an end.

Yet the official process for declaring war, Summers argued, was exactly how the American people -- the National Will -- gained confidence in what was our military/political strategy:

For most of our history, the support of the American people was built into our very force structuring.  The Army consisted of a rather small standing force, backed up first by the reserve forces of the National Guard and Army Reserve, and ultimately by nationwide conscription.  The American people had to give their approval through their elected representatives in Congress before this Army could be mobilized and deployed.  p. 13

After World War II this connection between the Army and the people was weakened in the name of insuring more rapid response to threats of American security.  For the first time in our history a large standing military was maintained in peacetime and our reserve forces declined in importance.  The unwitting effect of this was the creation of a neo-18th century-type Army answerable more to the Executive than to the American people.  p. 14

the requirement for a declaration of war was rooted in the principle of civilian control of the military, and the failure to declare war in Vietnam drove a wedge between the Army and large segments of the American public.  p. 22

Even though McCain seems to understand that "if you were going to use the American military to end a dispute or displace a foreign government, then you had to have the American public firmly on your side," he doesn't seem inclined towards the steps that can achieve that goal.  In fact, I'm going to argue that Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to build the broad national consensus required for transforming our national security policy to face the threats on the 21st century.  Barack is correct when he says that:

Nearly all these threats have grown over the last 8 years because of the policies of George Bush, which I believe have left us less safe and less respected in the world. There's going to be a clear choice in this election: John McCain wants to continue the Bush-Cheney foreign policy. I want to turn the page.

"Instead of adhering to a rigid ideology, I want to get back to a pragamatic tradition of American foreign policy which has been so ably advanced by the people in this room.

We face a dynamic juxtaposition of global threats to our interests in the 21st century.  The sheer incompetence of the Bush administration to categorize and then address those threats leaves us almost paralyzed on how to move forward.  I would suggest that the threat posed by al-Qaeda and networked terrorists is similar in its nature to the original threat posed by the Soviet Union in the 1940s.  The onset of the Cold War was unfamiliar, required a fundamental change in tactics and strategy and necessitated a thorough and insightful analysis of the nature of the new threat.  Thus, George Kennan's "Long Telegram" was followed by the so-called X article, The Sources of Soviet Conduct, (reprinted here) which was followed five years later by NSC-68, the formal institutionalization of our Cold War strategy and emerging national consensus (reprinted here).  Contrast this to what the Bush administration has done, and what John McCain proposes.

How our Cold War strategy unfolded conformed with our Clausewitzian strategic doctrine.  "As Clausewitz said, we should not 'take the first step without considering the last.'" (p. 185)  Further:

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgement that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish . . . the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.  This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive. (clausewitz, on war, I:1 p. 13)

Barack Obama, uniquely among the presidential candidates, has done the analytical work and put forward a strategic framework.  To my mind, it's not sufficient for institutionalization, but it's a beginning.  Barack Obama brings to the challenge of being Commander in Chief a curious mind, a sharp intellect, an openness to differing views, a decisiveness that can be shocking, a commitment to the just war tradition and the ability to not only build and communicate with the American people, but to excite them and build the needed national consensus.  There are no better traits to expect in our next Commander in Chief...

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