This Is the Way Obama Goes to War

Oct 7, 09 | 8:25 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The commander in chief has taken the first step toward spelling out his war strategy in Afghanistan. Or, really, by avoiding a specific strategy, he is embracing a radical new one.

The New York Times reports that in a bipartisan meeting at the White House the president said he wanted to “dispense with the straw man argument that this is about either doubling down or leaving Afghanistan.” (This is, anyway, the official White House version of what he said.)

This is enough of a repudiation of much of the best thinking on regional wars to come close to being an Obama Doctrine.

Practically speaking, various presidents fighting various regional wars have found themselves in a similar situation, pulled by countervailing forces, damned if you do, damned if you don’t, but, to my knowledge, this is the first time a president has sought to make finding himself between a rock and a hard place a formal military strategy. The president is searching, the Times reports, for “some sort of middle ground.”

Since Vietnam the military view has been to avoid, at all costs, the middle ground. This imperative had its ultimate expression in the Powell Doctrine, which said your military objectives had to be precise and they had to be accomplished with decisive force. (There were other points, too, like having the support of the nation and having an exit strategy.)

In many ways, this was a doctrine designed specifically to protect the military. The opposite approach, the muddled one, almost always lead to unpopular and, at best, stalemated wars, which the military invariably gets blamed for.

The president is now saying that, putting aside that ideal circumstance for the military, political exigencies favor a muddle. For a variety of political and practical reasons, he can’t commit to a specific and programmatic approach in the Afghan theater. Decisive force would be wildly unpopular within his own party and it might not be decisive anyway. Turning tail or reducing our military presence would give the Republicans great material against him, and create turmoil and other bad stuff (certainly bad press) when Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, which it surely would.

So, doing what neither side wants, he has determined, it seems, to brazen it out. The real strategic idea here is to keep your options open until you find an opportunity. You’re trying a lot of stuff, throwing it against the wall to see if it sticks, buying time.

This is an uncomfortable strategy, and, perhaps, a morally dubious one, because you’re basically asking people to risk their lives (or lose their lives) because you, in essence, have no idea what to do.

Their lives are not to be expended in pursuit of a national goal. Their lives are being expended so the president can have the time to figure out how to accomplish the most with the least political damage to himself.

That’s the new Obama Doctrine of waging war in the middle ground.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at You can also follow him on Twitter:
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