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War by Other Means

Author: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
September 27, 2010
Foreign Policy


Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars, quotes the president expressing concern about the domestic political implications of military strategy in Afghanistan: "I can't lose the whole Democratic Party," he tells Sen. Lindsey Graham in defending his decision to announce July 2011 as the date for the beginning of U.S. troop withdrawals. Some have denounced this as evidence that the president is endangering the nation by putting politics ahead of military necessity. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, for example, described the president's quote as "some of the most cold-blooded, cynical, grotesquely political manipulation of national security that I think we've ever seen."

Like most of Washington, I haven't read the book yet. So I don't know the full context of the quote. But I do know that it's no sin for a president to consider the domestic politics of military strategy. On the contrary, he has to. It's a central part of his job as commander in chief.

Waging war requires resources--money, troops, and equipment--and in a democracy, resources require public support. In the United States, the people's representatives in Congress control public spending. If a majority of lawmakers vote against the war, it will be defunded, and this means failure every bit as much as if U.S. soldiers were outfought on the battlefield. A necessary part of any sound strategy is thus its ability to sustain the political majority needed to keep it funded, and it's the president's job to ensure that any strategy the country adopts can meet this requirement. Of course, war should not be used to advance partisan aims at the expense of the national interest; the role of politics in strategy is not unlimited. But a military strategy that cannot succeed at home will fail abroad, and this means that politics and strategy have to be connected by the commander in chief.

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