Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

January 9, 2014

On Obama: The Virtue of Doubt

By David K. Shipler

            President Obama deserves praise, not criticism, for the views on Afghanistan attributed to him in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s memoir. In the book’s most quoted lines, Gates writes of a meeting in March 2011, “As I sat there, I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
Gates doesn’t mean this as a compliment, but if it’s accurate, then two cheers for Obama. It’s just too bad his actions didn’t coincide with his doubts—a familiar pattern.
Let’s take Gates’s observations one at a time:
Obama was obviously right to distrust his commander, David Petraeus, who was felled the following year as CIA director by an extra-marital affair, and whose counterinsurgency brilliance was always overstated. Petraeus was a charming man of poor judgment.
Obama was justified about Karzai, who has proved to be a puppet without strings—a self-absorbed enabler of corruption who cannot govern his country or practice sensible diplomacy with his chief benefactor.
Obama was correct in not believing in “his own strategy” of beefing up troops in Afghanistan, articulated during his 2008 campaign.
The “strategy” originated as a political attack on the Bush preoccupation with Iraq and never developed into a credible way of securing the military victory in Afghanistan. Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars stenographically describes meetings in which the top brass, plus Gates, did in fact “game” Obama by repeatedly coming back with proposals that thinly disguised their stealthy inclusion of more troops than Obama had told them he wanted. Indeed, a picture emerges of a president hemmed into such narrow parameters by his military and intelligence establishments that the flawed policy he adopted—perhaps reluctantly—lacked any hint of inventiveness. (Gates has said in interviews that he thought Obama believed in the strategy when he approved it in 2009 and only gradually came to doubt it.)
That Obama didn’t consider the war his own is neither shocking nor unreasonable, since it wasn’t his own. He didn’t start it, didn’t like the way it had gone, and was trying to end it on acceptable terms.
“For him, it’s all about getting out,” Gates chastises. Well, let’s raise a glass to Obama for that. Gates himself wanted to get out—get out of his job—as he writes: “Even thinking about the troops, I would lose my composure with increasing frequency. I realized I was beginning to regard protecting them--avoiding their sacrifice—as my highest priority. And I knew that this loss of objectivity meant it was time to leave.”
Time to leave, by which he means time for Robert Gates to leave—and to leave behind tens of thousands of troops who were being bloodied for no good result. For if the initial invasion to oust the Taliban from power was justified, the long aftermath has been fruitless.
Afghanistan will go its own way when we go ours, and that way is likely to be, yet again, a patchwork of fiefdoms and tribal loyalties laced through with “Islamist” Taliban-type fundamentalism. It’s an old lesson, but it has to be relearned repeatedly: Outside powers have never been able to remake Afghanistan, not Genghis Khan, not Britain, not the Soviet Union, not the United States. If Obama sees that, give him credit. 
I keep remembering a week I spent in Afghanistan in 1988 as Soviet troops were preparing to leave, and sensing the clock ticking down on the government of President Najibullah, who on the tenth anniversary of the pro-Soviet “revolution,” staged an ostentatious parade of military equipment, troops, and flag-waving citizens akin to the holiday displays in Red Square. It seemed like a final spasm of celebration, although Najibullah kept his seat until 1992, when he took refuge in the U.N. compound until the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. They seized him, beat him, shot him, and hung his body in the street.
On the eve of their departure, the Soviet soldiers I spoke with were candid and conflicted. “This war is evil,” Private Yuri Moshnikov told me, a week before he was scheduled to leave. “No one needs this war. Afghanistan doesn’t need it. We don’t need it.” Yet he also thought “the situation in Afghanistan would have been worse” without Soviet intervention.
As reflective American troops might struggle today to find nuanced answers, so did a Soviet sergeant, Aleksei Sayenko. “Of course it was good to help them,” he said, “but for how long I’m not competent to say. It’s a very difficult question for me. If we were some help, it wasn’t a mistake.”

The soldiers should write the epitaphs for the wars.


  1. Sue --- I applaud former Defense Secretary Robert Gates for being so passionate and forthright in his new memoir. I think he has done a thorough job of laying out support for our country's having its elected President serve as Commander-in-Chief. Counterbalancing military decisionmakers with civilian decisionmakers has the potential for wise and sound decisionmaking. President John F. Kennedy certainly demonstrated this in his forging his own course in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Unfortunately, this counterbalanced framework does not preclude civilian and military aligning with one another, commiting hubris, and creating tragic warfare, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Indeed, I agree with you that soldiers should write the epitaphs for wars.

  2. Mr Shipler, In your blog, you state that President Obama was right to distrust General Petraeus and use Petraeus' extramarital affair as evidence of his lack of trustworthiness. Are you saying that General Petraeus should not have been trusted on military matters because of actions in his personal life. It may turn out that I agree with you but first I want to make sure I understand. Are you saying that because he has proven to be dishonest in his personal life and marriage that he cannot be trusted in anything else?

    Did you apply this same reasoning to President Clinton during his presidency in regards to the Monica Lewinsky scandal? If so, does it still apply to President Clinton? If not, do you now apply it to President Clinton. Not only was President Clinton involved in an extramarital affair, he also lied about it under oath.

    1. People are more complex than that. I think they can be rather uneven in their honesty and capabilities. Petraeus, as I mentioned, was overrated as a military man, in my opinion, notwithstanding his terrible judgment in having an affair that could have made him subject to blackmail as the CIA director. But that action went beyond a failure of personal morals. It had the potential to jeopardize national security. (The Soviet KGB understood this very well and had a standard practice of sending seductive women toward foreign diplomats and military attaches assigned to Moscow, hoping to compromise them. The targets knew this and, for the most part, avoided entanglements.) As for Clinton, the same reasoning applies. Someone in such a high position, possessing valuable secrets and immense authority, does not have the luxury of walling off his personal dishonesty and deception as if they had no bearing on his ability to carry out his official duties. Aside from indicating a profound character flaw, such behavior made Clinton also vulnerable to undue influence from anybody who knew about Lewinsky. Just because there is no evidence that either Petraeus or Clinton was swayed in the official realm by the desire to cover up their dalliances doesn't mean that the potential was absent. I doubt that either of them, going through a normal background check, could have received a security clearance were these relationships known to the investigators. Does that answer your question?