The Magazine

Still Commander in Chief

A few suggestions, in a spirit of bipartisanship.

Nov 19, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 10 • By MAX BOOT
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Afghanistan. At the end of September your military commanders in Afghanistan completed a drawdown of surge troops, leaving 68,000 U.S. military personnel in the country. Now you must decide how quickly you want to remove those troops and what the 2014 deadline for transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans actually means: Will all U.S. troops be gone by the end of 2014 or will you leave a substantial contingent of forces labeled as “advise and assist” rather than as “combat” forces? And if you decide to leave troops past 2014, how many will you leave—a token force of a few thousand who will be utterly ineffectual or a more robust force of 30,000-plus that could make a meaningful contribution to prevent a Taliban takeover? Those decisions can’t be postponed for long because you need to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with Kabul soon, and you need to provide guidance to our commanders on the ground. They are waiting to find out how many troops they will have to figure out what kind of campaign plan they can design and execute. (Usually requirements on the ground drive decisions on force size but apparently you prefer to do it in reverse.)

Sequestration. On January 2, as a result of a budget deal that you reached with Congress in the summer of 2011, sequestration is set to take effect—
$1.2 trillion in cuts split evenly between the defense budget and domestic discretionary spending. The $600 billion or so in defense cuts, coming on top of $487 billion in cuts already legislated in 2011, will have a devastating impact on our military capabilities as your own defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have warned. The cuts are especially draconian because they will hit every line item in the defense budget equally, regardless of merit. You said during the third presidential debate that the cuts won’t happen. But what will you do to prevent them? So far you’ve been absent from the budget negotiations that have occurred between House and Senate members—and leaders of your party have been dragging their feet because they want to use the threat of defense cuts to bludgeon Republicans into agreeing to tax increases. In fact, officials in your own administration have leaked word that you would veto any attempt to stop sequestration if it didn’t raise taxes on the “wealthy.” Are you going to hold the men and women in our armed forces hostage in order to achieve your domestic policy goals? You need to decide your position soon—although the private group OMB Watch claims you can unilaterally delay sequestration for at least a few weeks to give yourself more time to work out a deal with Congress.

Personnel. The end of a presidential term is the traditional time for senior, and not-so-senior, political appointees to leave office. CIA director David Petraeus has just resigned. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have made clear they’re quitting. Tom Donilon, the national security adviser, has suggested he’d like to stay on, but there is no requirement that you keep him; fresh faces can invigorate a second term and prevent burnout. In any case, you will now have a chance to put an important imprimatur on your national security team. When you began your first term in office you leaned toward centrism and bipartisanship by appointing Clinton to State, Bob Gates to defense, and Jim Jones to the NSC. You have a chance to continue that legacy by filling at least one of these top jobs with an independent or a Republican—
someone like Joe Lieberman, or Tom Kean. If, instead, you choose appointees who are viewed as partisan Democrats—appointing John Kerry or Susan Rice or Tom Donilon as secretary of state, for example—you will do real damage to your relatively successful attempts, at least if we judge by exit polls, to establish your credibility and your party’s on the all-important issue of national security.

This is hardly a comprehensive list of the challenges you will face. You will also have to deal with a rising China, a belligerent if declining Russia, a dangerous North Korea, and an al Qaeda organization that has been decimated in Pakistan in large part thanks to your efforts but which has managed to spread its tentacles far afield, from Mali to Yemen. And then, of course, there is always the strong possibility of an unexpected crisis—such as the attack on the Benghazi consulate on September 11, which did real, if limited and temporary, damage to your standing on national security issues.

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