Suffice to say that Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones wasn’t too keen on the often-petty intrigue found in Robert Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars. Yet, I think the disagreement and dissent within President Obama’s inner circle was, and still is, healthy. (Edit: So does Jamie McIntyre) After all, another Democratic president, also full of youth and new ideas, actually encouraged dissent during one of the world’s greatest crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis.
According to Robert F. Kennedy’s memoir, Thirteen Days, President John F. Kennedy encouraged disagreement and debate among his top advisors, dubbed the “Ex Comm”, during those dangerous days of October 1962. Then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy recalls that the President, faced with the very real possibility of nuclear war, solicited as many opinions as possible from his most trusted advisors. He valued this dialectic conversation so much that, upon learning of a plot by some advisors to exclude dissenters from a top-level meeting, President Kennedy intervened, allowing alternate viewpoints into the debate.
It’s worth noting that the most eerily prescient passage in Thirteen Days concerns Robert Kennedy’s frustration with the inability of generals to view the world in strategic terms. Kennedy’s military staff came up with plans for neutralizing the nuclear warheads in Cuba through airstrikes and/or a massive invasion. Yet, Robert Kennedy remarks that they couldn’t understand the greater strategic picture—action against Cuba might trigger a Soviet invasion of Europe (especially West Berlin), sparking a chain of events which could have easily led to nuclear war.
In many ways, President Obama is in a similar, though nowhere nearly as precarious, predicament. Certainly, ISAF can prevail in Afghanistan, given appropriate resources, as Aaron Ellis points out. Yet, the difficult decision is in weighing Afghanistan against the greater strategic picture. Not even America has unlimited resources to spare. Therefore, President Obama has realized that we need to balance the threat the Afghanistan/Pakistan region with threats from North Korea, from China, and even from rogue hackers.
Grand Strategy is about making the difficult decisions and picking the right battles, and applying the right resources. It’s not an easy decision, to be sure. I don’t envy the responsibility of President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, nor do I envy the dilemma facing President Obama now.