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Lawyers at war

The inability of commanders in the field to provide their troops with clear instructions has been a chronic problem throughout the history of warfare. Battles have been lost as a result. Generals Grant and Sherman are often singled out for their ability during the Civil War to give exceptionally clear orders, and some of their success has been attributed to this skill. (Sherman’s clarity carried over into the field of politics where he famously stated “if nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve.)
It isn’t surprising that, during the heat of battle, commanders struggle to put their quickly formed ideas into precise words. But what should we make of President Obama’s apparent failure during the course of many months to communicate his precise intentions for carrying out the war in Afghanistan?
Clearly, it is not due to the intense pressure of the battlefield. We must conclude, I think, that Obama is either incompetent at formulating his thoughts or he is intentionally introducing ambiguity into his war plans. The former possibility is extremely difficult to reconcile with what we know about Obama. Thus, it seems likely that Obama’s ambiguity about Afghanistan is intentional.
Lawyers sometimes write deliberately ambiguous passages. Their purpose is to avoid being pinned.
This may well be Obama’s purpose when it comes to Afghanistan. Like many politicians, Obama likes to tell people what they want to hear. Constituencies important to Obama want to hear divergent things about Afghanistan. His base wants to hear, at a minimum, that we will be out of that country soon. A critical mass of mainstream voters wants to hear that he we won’t be there for a lengthy period of time. The military wants to hear that we will fight to win.
After Obama’s West Point speech announcing that some sort of a drawdown would begin no later than July 2010, various administration officials articulated (in some cases through leaks) various glosses on the speech that seemed designed to placate the various constituencies mentioned above. I assumed that Obama was responsible for the resulting ambiguity, which not only appeases competing viewpoints but leaves him with flexibility as July 2010 approaches.
I did not assume that the competing pronouncements about what will happen in July 2010 (and what will dictate what happens then) were standing in the way of clear instructions to the military about how to fight in Afghanistan now. Yet, the Washington Post’s reporting indicates that this has, in fact, become a problem.
If so, it is is inexcusable. It is one thing (though not desirable) for a president to confuse the public; it’s another thing for a president to confuse his generals. One cannot wordsmith one’s way around the difficult decisions associated with conducting a war. I suspect only a lawyer would think of trying.

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