The press is reporting that the top military leaders have “endorsed” President Obama’s Afghan troop withdrawal decision. With all due respect to the fine reporters, that is not the news. Under our Constitution, military leaders have no choice but to endorse the president’s decision after giving him their best advice. They could resign, of course, but to have the entire senior military leadership resign over a president’s decision contrary to their advice would be a disaster, and not least for the troops on the ground.
Make no mistake, however. The entire military leadership believes the president’s decision is a mistake, and especially the decision to withdraw the remainder of the surge forces by September 2012. They will soldier on and do their best, but as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, put it, in characteristic understatement, they believe the decision will increase the risk to the troops and increase the chancethat the mission will not succeed. It bears repeating that the deadline imposed by the president has nothing to do with military or strategic calculation. It has everything to do with an electoral calculation. President Obama wants those troops out two months before Americans go to the voting booth.
This may prove a disastrous political calculation, too, however. If the war is going badly in the summer and fall of 2012, it will be because of the decision the president made this week. Everyone will know he did it against the advice of his commanders. Everyone will know he did it for political reasons. So if the war is going badly a year from now, whom do you think the American people will blame? There will still be 70,000 American troops in Afghanistan, but as part of a losing effort. Will Americans reward Obama at the polls under those circumstances?
This was a shortsighted decision from every perspective. There is still time for the president to fix it. He just needs to say that the deadline is flexible and depends on circumstances on the ground. That would go some way toward repairing the damage he has done.