THE BLOG
12/03/2014 11:54 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2014

Hagel and Beyond: Obama's Pentagon Problem Is More A White House Problem

"No Democratic president can go against military advice, especially if he has asked for it. So just do it. Do what they said."

-- Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta, in Bob Woodward's Obama's War's

More than a week after his sudden ditching of Defense Secretary and would-be fall guy Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama finally seems to have a nominee for the post which other leading candidates promptly turned down. Ashton Carter, Yalie and Rhodes Scholar with an Oxford doctorate in theoretical physics, most recently visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, has a long history as a preeminent Pentagon technocrat. So returning Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain is signaling ultimate approval of the ex-deputy defense secretary, though at the end of of a process that casts a harsh light on Obama's geopolitical stumbles of the past couple years, with a special eye on White House "micro-management" of military matters.

While this tawdry little melodrama has played out, events in Afghanistan -- where the government is utterly dysfunctional and brazen Taliban attacks on the capital Kabul give the lie to vaunted security arrangements -- point up the reality that Obama's geopolitical problems are not only not new but also go back to his basic process of devising strategy and designing a government.

Specifically, the problem goes back to Obama's National Security Council (NSC) set-up in the White Houe, which ran the Afghan policy review which gave rise to the Afghanistan surge. Which, like the Iraq surge, postponed inevitable developments. But in an even stupider way.

Having backpacked through Central Asia decades ago, it was obvious that nation-building in Afghanistan was an even dumber project than in Iraq. But the combination of liberal do-goodism and the customary Pentagon push for a bigger operation led to a second post-9/11 non sequitur strategy and massive waste of resources, time, energy, and credibility.

Instead of, say, a manned mission to Mars, doubling of the aircraft carrier fleet, and raft of new environmental and social programs we could have had instead, impressing the world, we have another debacle that no one wants to talk about.

The quote at the top from veteran California political figure and Washington hand Leon Panetta -- elevated by Obama to posts he never thought he would get only to turn on the president while selling his book during the mid-term elections -- is certainly a way to go. But it's the wrong way to go.

After all, had John F. Kennedy simply followed his unified military advice during the Cuban Missile Crisis, we would have launched air strikes and mounted an invasion of Cuba. Which, we now know, would probably have triggered the use of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons, and a not unlikely whirlwind to follow.

Not that the military are always ultra-interventionist. There seemed little appetite for the Libya operation or for jumping into the middle of the Syrian civil war, the conflict Obama nearly careened into last year.

Obama's NSC process on Afghanistan in 2009 mirrored his NSC process on Isis over the the past year. Slow. Overly deliberative. And wrong.

Obama's Afghanistan process -- and the insularity of his political and staff operation -- also ended up burning up two major players who had an appropriate view of what could and could not be done there and could deal effectively with the Pentagon.

For Obama had not one but two articulate and impressive Marine four-star generals in James Jones and James "Hoss" Cartwright, respectively his first national security advisor and the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Obama failed to back up these huge assets for a Democratic president, and they departed after being severely undercut.

So now when there are complaints about White House "micro-management" of military affairs by a collection of national security aides with no military or intelligence backgrounds whatsoever, not to mention little in the way of prior world travel or published analysis, Obama stands exposed in the media.

Another example of faulty process and squandered resources in a presidency of great promise.

Now Obama, more Athenian than Roman in an insider culture which oddly still rewards the latter, faces an ascendant anti-Enlightenment party in Congress and daunting global challenges. Not the least of which is the long-term prospect of climate change making the planet uninhabitable.

A very challenging final two years for Obama is going to be more troublesome than it needed to be.

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