Vice Presidents Collage

VPWatch2: Afghanistan Agonistes 2 & Pence’s Play

Quick note, I have two blogs – this one which started out as sort of the commentary track to my dissertation on the vice president, but now is more broadly on presidents, politics, and White House process. And then Terrorwonk, which started out on terrorism and has expanded to international affairs, technology, and ideas in general. This particular rant is unique because Part 1 is at TerrorWonk because it is about the policy aspects of Afghanistan. Part 2 is about the struggles in actually making policy on Afghanistan and the Vice President’s increasingly significant role.

Also, I was originally going to entitle this Sympathy for the Donald, but my sympathy for the President has evaporated.

The president is really wrestling with making policy towards Afghanistan. There are no good choices.

But besides the fundamental challenge of choosing what flavor of unpleasantness he wants to spend the rest of his presidency dealing with – the president is also facing institutional barriers to changing policy.

It is possible that the president is ready to call it quits in Afghanistan. But the National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, believes in the nation-building/counter-insurgency mission (and has some pretty serious credibility at it). So when the president asks for options, he keeps getting more counter-insurgency and less withdrawal. It is likely that McMaster has the backing of DoD (and possibly Kelly as well.) The DoD isn’t going to want to lose a war it is currently fighting.

A more skilled president would know a bit more about working the system to obtain more options, but the current denizen of the Oval Office does not possess significant experience on national security issues or with large bureaucracies.

This frustration with and inability to manipulate the bureaucratic politics may have been one of the reasons the president proposed sending mercenaries.

Pence’s Play
And this is where the VP comes in. According to some reports, Pence played a central role in overseeing the policy review process. While some insiders claim that Pence was allied with McMaster in pushing for more troops, Pence himself stated he played the honest broker role gathering information, mapping out scenarios, and presenting options to the president.

The first observation is that this implies that the president has a pretty high level of trust in the vice president. Pence has been exceptionally loyal and an effective ambassador on the national and global stage. That has built his internal capital with a president who values loyalty, but whose messaging has been plagued with controversy.

Essential history of NSAs

It also highlights that there may be problems in the national security process. It is not the case the McMaster is not capable. He is a PhD, best-selling author, successful battlefield commander, and successful counter-insurgency innovator. But if Pence is the honest broker in the process, then it appears that the president does not have complete confidence in his National Security Advisor.

Any review of the history of the NSA highlights the importance of a close working relationship with the president. Without this, no NSA can hope to be successful. Although, if McMaster was a constant proponent of sending more troops – which the president did not really want to do – then charging Pence with guiding the process actually makes sense.

Finally, Pence’s role echoes that of Biden. Obama too engaged in a top to bottom review of the war in Afghanistan. Knowing that the military was pushing for large-scale, open ended troop commitments, Obama charged his vice president with creating alternatives. The point was to give the president time and space to make his own decision and the vice president had the standing to do it. Except that in the current case, it looks like the president – rather than getting new options – ended up with pretty much the policy his NSA was pushing.

From the outside, it appears that Pence does have some opportunities for influence. VPs always have to choose their battles. Gore stayed out of healthcare and Bush Sr. stayed out of economics policy. Cheney wasn’t really interested in domestic affairs at all. With this president, who is um… mercurial, so that policy can change very quickly, it is even more important for the VP to choose where to use this hard won internal capital.

If this reporting on the Vice President’s role in the Afghanistan review is accurate, it also reflects on the outsider/insider paradigm. This concept (at the core of my research) is that presidents with limited Washington experience turn to vice presidents with this experience for help. Trump has less political or Washington experience than any president in history. It would make perfect sense that he would turn to his vice president for assistance with the thorniest problems.

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