Why “Befuddled”?

Leslie Gelb, distinguished diplomat, journalist, and scholar, professes befuddlement over President Obama’s strategy with respect to Afghanistan:

I’m lost on President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy—along with most of Congress and the U.S. military. Not quite eight months ago, Mr. Obama pledged to “defeat” al Qaeda in Afghanistan by transforming that country’s political and economic infrastructure, training Afghan forces and adding 21,000 U.S. forces for starters. He proclaimed Afghanistan’s strategic centrality to prevent Muslim extremism from taking over Pakistan—an even more vital nation because of its nuclear weapons. And a mere three weeks ago, he punctuated his commitments by proclaiming that Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” not one of choice. White House spokesmen reinforced this by promising that the president would “fully resource” the war.

Yet less than one week ago, Mr. Obama said the following about troop increases: “I’m going to take a very deliberate process in making those decisions. There is no immediate decision pending on resources, because one of the things that I’m absolutely clear about is you have to get the strategy right and then make a determination about resources.” He repeated that on Sunday’s talk shows.

I am befuddled over Dr. Gelb’s befuddlement and even more so by those who are surprised at the course that President Obama has pursued with respect to Afghanistan to date. As a candidate Barack Obama ran on Afghanistan as a war of necessity. As president he re-affirmed the importance of winning in Afghanistan, which we can now say with some confidence is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future”. In pursuit of those ends he appointed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as U. S. commander in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal was well-known to advocate a strategy of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan.

The counter-insurgency doctrine that currently prevails in the U. S. military is that, in order to prosecute a strategy of counter-insurgency successfully in Afghanistan, we need more troops there. Eventually, some of those troops might be provided by Afghanistan itself. However, the troops are needed now and that means that we must supply them.

As a spine-stiffener, people in the Pentagon are apparently signaling that Gen. McChrystal will resign (hat tip: Bill Roggio) if he’s not given the resources he’s requested. He was put there to do a job, his approach to the job was well-known in advance, and, if he’s not going to be given the resources to do the job in that way, he shouldn’t be there at all. That only makes sense. The military is a profession and he’s ethically required to do so.

If President Obama refuses to give Gen. McChrystal what he’s asked for, it would be foolish or, at the very least, confused. However, it’s too early for befuddlement. Even if President Obama turns Gen. McChrystal down, it won’t be particularly confusing. Either, having become fully informed on the situation, President Obama has changed his mind or he’s yielded to political pressure, as you prefer.

Either way it is likely to be politically damaging to President Obama, leaving him open to charges of naïveté, lack of resolution, or political motivation. But it won’t be confusing.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. James Joyner says:

    Gelb’s point is that Obama spent three years talking about how important Afghanistan was, doubled down on the COIN mission, and is now giving every signal that he’s not interested in following through to the logical end. As Gelb says, nothing has changed in the last three months to warrant a massive strategic reassessment. So, either Obama blindly followed a strategy he hadn’t assessed to begin with or he’s undertaking a befuddling change of mind.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I think it’s more likely that Obama is being deliberate or attempting to appear deliberate.

  3. sam says:

    As Gelb says, nothing has changed in the last three months to warrant a massive strategic reassessment. So, either Obama blindly followed a strategy he hadn’t assessed to begin with or he’s undertaking a befuddling change of mind.

    Maybe he’s thinking he needs political cover re the left wing of the Dems. Do any of you think the following might provide that cover?

    FBI Arrests Three Men in Terror Plot that Targeted New York

    Agents in Denver arrested Najibullah Zazi, a 24-year old airport shuttle driver, who authorities say appears to be the ringleader of the alleged plot. Also charged with lying to the FBI was Zazi’s father, Mohammed Zazi.

    In affidavits filed in connection with the arrests, agents say they discovered nine pages of handwritten notes in Zazi’s computer with details on how to make a homemade bomb.

    According to the affidavit, Zazi initially denied knowing anything about the notes when he was shown them by the FBI during a three day interrogation.

    Later, Zazi admitted the notes were his and that he attended an al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and received instructions on weapons and explosives.