Essays on Rebuilding America: Strategy Obama Style: Afghanistan 1; Iraq 0

Columnist : Frank Ryan

by Col. Frank Ryan, USMC Ret.

Recently, in an article in the New York Times, Barack Obama called the war in Iraq a grave mistake. He indicated that on his first day in office he would call in his commanders and give them the mission of ending the war.

Unfortunately, Senator Obama’s understanding of the strategic blunder in Iraq is clouded by his apparent unwillingness to realize that Iraq is a problem today because of a prior administration’s strategic blunder. That blunder in allowing our nation to be held hostage for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis in the 1979, set the stage for the world events that we are facing today.

Senator Obama, hopefully, will eventually realize his inconsistent and na├»ve pronouncements about the Middle East will only destabilize a region already burdened by its own history. I am a retired Colonel of Marines who has served in Iraq and briefly in Afghanistan. My experiences with insurgencies cause me to question Senator Obama’s experience to lead our Nation at this perilous time. His “mission” of “ending the war” is not a strategy at all. Ending the war as a mission without defining the objective to be accomplished at the end of the war is a disaster waiting to happen. Withdrawal of forces as the only objective may be popular but it is certainly irresponsible. He needs to define the desired end state post conflict rather than the strategic vacuum he is now proposing.

A few months ago on the Ellen DeGeneres show, Barack Obama was asked what he was going to do on day 1, if he were elected. Mr. Obama indicated, after much discussion about what might constitute his first day in office, he would call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff to discuss an honorable and responsible withdrawal from Iraq. That’s a far cry from “ending the war.”

In the same New York Times op-ed, Mr. Obama also noted that he would shift forces from Iraq to Afghanistan. Now if I understand him correctly, he seems to be suggesting a surge in Afghanistan. Was he against the surge before he was for it?

In reality, I would have hoped that he had the life’s experiences to realize that once the Iraq war’s tide turned, those terrorists who survived Iraq most likely retreated to their last bastion in Afghanistan. The terrorists will be dealt with by our forces in Afghanistan in much the same way our forces dealt with the terrorists in Iraq. A surge in Afghanistan would be precisely the strategy that President Bush would have recommended and it is the correct one. Is it reasonable to surmise then, that a Barack Obama presidency would really be a third Bush term?

When the surge in Iraq was being debated months ago, a local ABC News affiliate interviewed me and Senator Bob Casey about the surge. Senator Casey, an ardent supporter of Barack Obama, indicated that the surge would fail. I indicated the exact opposite and that the surge in and of itself showed the terrorists that our national strategy would not be deterred. Our nation had resolve. Resolve will turn the tide in most conflicts. If President Carter had resolve in 1979, the Iraq issue would not be the issue it is today. Our weakness in the Iran hostage crisis increased the likelihood of the disaster we experienced on September 11th.

Our nation’s strategies have all too often been negatively impacted by the decisions of our elected leaders to make populist decisions rather than the right decision. Those decisions such as declaring a peace dividend during the Clinton Administration thereby gravely weakening our military forces, to deemphasizing human intelligence in favor of signal intelligence during the Carter Administration, to significantly reducing our Special Operations forces in the early 1990’s all have lead to where we are today.

Mr. Obama’s recent pronouncements about Iraq and the growing unrest in Afghanistan merely cause me to believe that his populist approach will result in greater problems for our nation and our children for decades to come. If you wish to be a true leader, make decisions that are necessary for the long time benefit of our Nation. Our citizens deserve no less. Leadership is about doing that which is right and not change for change sake.


Frank Ryan is a member of the Lincoln Institute Board of Directors and lectures for the AICPA and BLI on management related topics. He can be reached at [email protected]