You can’t create national security policy in a vacuum

29 September 2010, 1931 EDT

Stephen Biddle has a spot-on piece over at Foreign Policy on how Presidents, and Obama in particular, must take into account domestic politics when setting national security strategy.  With the release of Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars, many have jumped on the President’s alleged quote that he can’t lose the entire Democratic Party to justify the need to set a troop draw-down date for Afghanistan as evidence that he’s putting politics above national security (as if anything can be separated from politics).

Biddle responds:

…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.

State leaders must always balance the domestic and international when formulating policy.  What may be possible internationally may not be sustainable domestically, and vice versa.  Ignoring either one typically leads to disaster.  Political scientists have long argued that outcomes are the result of simultaneous negotiations between domestic and international audiences, as well as the difficultly states face when trying to sustain public supporter for wars of choice.  Condemning leaders for being prudent may make for good copy, but it makes no sense given all we know about policymaking.