Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Operation Frustration

The firestorm created by Gen. Stanley McChrystal's comments from a yet to be published article in Rolling Stone magazine crystallizes the current Afghan effort. The Generals in the field are frustrated with the civilian leadership. The civilian leadership is frustrated with the military and the Afghan government. The Afghan people are frustrated with everyone. The American public is barely paying attention to the war because of the problems back home. It would be fair to characterize the AfPak endeavor as ‘Operation Frustration’.

Clearly Gen. McChrystal and others in the military have been irritated and frustrated by the Obama administration for quite some time. The deliberative approach of Mr. Obama was a cause for concern to many. This frustration only builds up when US troops have to deal with extremely restrictive rules of engagement in implementing the Patreus/McChrystal COIN strategy. Raids and searches have to be conducted in tandem with incompetent Afghan police of dubious loyalties. The highly effective night raids are rare because President Karzai does not approve. Engaging the enemy is only allowed when fired upon first (i.e. after you are shot). All this would cause anyone to be angry, let alone the man in charge of uprooting the Taliban, converting and sustaining the loyalties of the warlords and peasants, and go after Al Qaeda elements. Thus the medium of conveying his annoyance at the civilian leadership is the issue here, not the actual sentiment, which should come as no surprise to anyone.

The reason Gen. McChrystal is in serious trouble is because his aides made a series of irresponsible comments about the civilian leadership that put them in charge of AfPak. What is even more concerning is who these comments were made to. Now, no matter the degree of dissatisfaction with Mr. Obama and his policies, talking to reporters behind the President's back is simply unacceptable. If the urge to voice your frustrations to a reporter becomes necessary then Gen. McChrystal and his aides should at least have the smarts to talk to a Bob Woodward or a Richard Engel. They would have used this information mainly to paint a picture and kept the inflammatory quotes (especially names) out of it. Talking to an unheard of, freelance reporter out to establish himself is exactly the last thing someone in McChrystal's position should do. (This is not a knock on the reporter; who appears to be adept at extracting information over drinks).

It remains to be seen what comes out of the meeting between the administration and Gen. McChrystal. It would be a very bad idea to fire him right now because of the immense hardship facing US troops in Afghanistan. It would be safe to say that most soldiers on the ground share at least a part of their commander's frustration toward some civilian operatives. The one thing that has to be done is reconsider the role of the envoy Richard Holbrook and ambassador Eikenberry. They are actually proving to be a problem for the military rather than productive liaisons that they were supposed to be. An important decision for Mr. Obama is to figure out a way to separate Mr. Eikenberry and the military leadership on the ground. It is clear that the relationship between those two mirrors the relationship between Mr. Karzai and the US administration. They work together only because they have to and neither seems to trust the other. This is not a constructive dynamic to have and it certainly cannot be sustained. Mr. Eikenberry was on the losing side of the argument during last year's extensive discussion on the path forward in Afghanistan. He has made no secret of his distrust of Mr. Karzai and now it seems he is also continuously at odds with Gen. McChrystal. The troop level argument has been settled (at least for the time being) and it makes no sense to put opposing sides under one tent on the ground to figure out ways to actually make progress in Afghanistan. Simply put, Eikenberry and Holbrook are replaceable. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not, at least not in the short term.

This is a problem Mr. Obama did not need and did not create. An argument can be made that he has caused it gradually through his governing style. Having said that, this event would have been more understandable if it had happened last year when the AfPak strategy was being discussed in slow motion. Gen. McChrystal's aides have made a dangerous and foolish mistake by blurting out their frustrations to Rolling Stone. This will be a huge test for Mr. Obama and his much touted skills to compromise and reconcile differing views. The knee jerk left is already calling for the general's resignation. What they fail to understand is that this is not an academic concept or a preventive measure like wire taps where disagreement among leadership is expected and accepted. Afghanistan is a real war with a real enemy waiting to pounce on every perceived weakness; and there is no bigger weakness than a fractured leadership. One hopes that the President will swallow his ego, keep McChrystal in-charge and reiterate his commitment to the flailing Afghan war effort. Most importantly, Mr. Obama needs to prioritize the Afghan war and figure out how to solve what seem to be irreconcilable disagreements between the military and the White House. Gen. McChrystal's aides on the other hand, need to learn the art of shutting up.

Article first published as Operation Frustration on Blogcritics.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What We've Got Here Is Failure To.. Spin?

"I think if there's any mistake made (it's) that we haven't communicated clearly enough what the president has done on this oil spill from the beginning," - Vice President Joe Biden

President Obama has been criticized for his inexperience, stoicism, naivety, and even his citizenship. The one thing that was never in doubt about Barack Obama was his oratory talent. Even his strongest detractors will submit to his superior communication skills. Therefore it is quite amusing to see the Obama administration cite a lack of effective communication as the reason for being unable to sell their policies. White House aides contend that the lack of support for Obama policies is not because they are unpopular, ineffective or hyper partisan. The voters disapprove of the policies only because they have not been shown the light by the administration. The administration maintains that the stimulus bill was not a failure in terms of its primary goal to stem unemployment. Aides say the reason for that perception is that Mr. Obama has been unable to communicate (read spin) how effective it has been. Similarly most people do not oppose the healthcare bill because it will reduce quality, increase the deficit and create a massive bureaucracy. The opposition arises from the failure of the administration to convey the benefits of the bill. Since this tactic has worked so well, the White House is trying it again with the oil disaster. According to the administration, they have been involved and in charge from day one of the oil spill. The only reason the people aren’t seeing any results is because of a communication gap. All would be well if only the White House could explain how a push for an energy bill and a new PR campaign for healthcare fit into the immediate response to the spill.

Anyone who has followed Mr. Obama's presidency will attest to the effectiveness of him as a communicator. So far he has communicated the Republican Party into unity, given rise to the Tea Party movement, and even expressed his candidates out of a job in
New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts. On the foreign front, he successfully communicated allies likeTurkey and Brazil to side with Iran. Mr. Obama also communicated the new 'reset' policy toward Russia with such clarity that Mr. Putin is now gleefully playing both sides (Iran and US), while Poland nurses the stab wound on its back. On the economic front, the President conveyed last month's wonderful jobs report so effectively that the financial markets tanked. In fact the only people he has failed to communicate successfully with are Andrew Romanoff and Joe Sestak.

Barack Obama specializes in lofty rhetoric, sweeping declarations and idealistic platitudes. He can give a rousing speech about a nuke free world but when asked about day to day governing issues, he has no answer except to hide behind meetings with 'experts'. His response to the oil spill is a classic example of this phenomenon. He can talk for hours about the need for hypothetical regulations but when asked about specifics he can’t even tell you if his own director of the 
MMS resigned or was fired. Evidently, in an effort to avoid turning this oil spill into his Iran hostage crisis, Mr. Obama has made it into his Katrina. By being marginally interested and peripherally in charge, he has avoided looking like the helpless Jimmy Carter. Unfortunately Mr. Obama now resembles Mike Brown, the in-over-his-head former director of FEMA.

To remedy his image, President Obama wants everyone to know how furious he is about the whole situation. In fact he is so angry that he 
refuses to speak to Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP. According to Mr. Obama, Mr. Hayward would only tell him what he wants to hear and the President is not interested in that. This is a bizarre excuse under any circumstances but coming from Mr. Obama, who at one point wanted to talk to Iran without pre conditions, it is laughable. Apparently the Iranians would have only told him the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Another interesting aspect to this is the habit of Mr. Obama to shut out primary players when he is brainstorming solutions to problems. Last year it was Gen. Stanley McChrystal who got the cold shoulder from the President for weeks while the White House was 'deliberating' its Afghan strategy.

Contrary to the idiotic 'get angry' mantra being pushed by the media, people do not want to see an angry, emotional President. They just want to know that he is concerned and in charge. To show that he gets the message, Mr. Obama is on a quest to kick ass. This ass-kicking 
journey has led him to basketball courts, fundraisers, various heritage month celebrations and even a personal Paul McCartney concert. Of course giving the appearance that he is out of touch from the suffering of the gulf coast is not the problem here. The problem is that the public is just slow to understand how all this fits into the big picture of helping the gulf coast, reducing unemployment and success in Afghanistan (yes, the war is still going on). The strategery of it all is just too much for people to grasp. Meetings with James Cameron, a show at the Ford Theater and the McCartney concert are all links in the crisis response chain. You'll see it when they send the Terminator down in a Yellow Submarine to plug the leak.

Article first published as Obama's Communication Breakdown on Blogcritics.