The Buzz

"Option C" and Other Gimmicks

In the launch issue of Politico Magazine, Rosa Brooks discusses the tense relationship between the White House and its military commanders. Her piece covers somewhat familiar ground, but one section in particular captures an important dynamic regarding how foreign and defense policy is made. It covers the 2009 Afghan strategy review, which she calls perhaps the “single moment when Obama’s relationship with the military began to sour.” After General Stanley McChrystal’s request for forty thousand additional troops to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency approach leaked to the press, the White House was angered and began to feel boxed in. Obama eventually gave the military most of what it wanted on troop levels, ordering a surge of thirty thousand troops—but he also decreed that “after 18 months those troops would begin to withdraw.”

The way in which this incident played out created mutual mistrust, Brooks says. One White House official told her, “The White House was convinced that the military had a vested interest in escalating the conflict. They felt manipulated.” Pentagon officials, meanwhile, began to think that the White House assumed all of their requests for troops or resources were politically motivated. The result was a self-reinforcing cycle:

Over time, of course, a White House tendency to split the difference is bound to create perverse incentives for military planners, making mutual mistrust self-reinforcing. “If you believe the mission truly requires 50,000 troops and $50 billion, but you know that the White House is going to automatically cut every number in half, you’ll come in asking for 100,000 troops and $100 billion,” says the aforementioned former White House official. “The military eventually starts playing the very game the White House has always suspected them of playing.”

Playing games with the way that one presents options in foreign and defense policy is nothing new. Another is what’s sometimes called the “Option C” gimmick, in which one presents one’s own recommendation as the “sane” middle option between two extreme ones. In their book The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked, Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts described how this process worked during the Vietnam War:

Inside hawks and doves alike could be placated by the dynamics of “Option B” (or “C”—whichever was the option between opposite extremes). This is the technique of giving leeway to the bureaucracy to find its own common denominators. It meant policy papers loaded with false options—two patently unacceptable extremes of humiliating defeat and total war, and Option B.

The problem with an “Option C” approach is a familiar one: it leads to making significant choices without necessarily being aware that one is making them. In Vietnam, the middle option was usually a gradual increase in troops or commitment, couched between the alternatives of total withdrawal or dramatic escalation. Each time, it was framed as the only “reasonable” choice. But over time, the commitment of American lives and resources that the U.S. government made to Vietnam was absolutely enormous, whether or not the mission had a chance of succeeding or was worth the ultimate cost.

In Afghanistan, too, “Option C”-style presentation of options was prevalent. Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel used that model after conducting his initial review in early 2009. Likewise, McChrystal did the same in his request for forty thousand additional troops later that year, couching it between the alternatives of “10,000–11,000 to mostly train the Afghan forces” and “85,000 for a more robust counterinsurgency.”

The dynamic that Brooks highlights is more corrosive than this, however. When Riedel presented his version of “Option C” to Obama’s national-security principals, Bob Woodward writes in Obama’s Wars, “Everyone recognized this for the stunt it was.” When presidents or other senior leaders are presented with a series of options, they know that there’s a good chance they’re being primed to choose an intermediate one, and can correct against this bias accordingly. What Brooks is describing, by contrast, is a situation in which neither side believes that the other’s “Option C” actually represents its preferred option. In her account, the White House believes that the military’s middle option is itself inflated, and as a result the military then believes it has to inflate its own estimates in order to counterbalance this fact.

Is Brooks right? It’s difficult to say from the outside. But if she is, there’s no obvious answer to the problem she lays out. All government agencies are likely to want more resources for their projects, and the White House is always likely to be somewhat skeptical of those agencies’ requests. The stakes are just amplified when it comes to defense—both because saying “no” to the military is politically risky and because military decisions often have life-or-death consequences in a direct, visible way. All of which is to say that, while we should certainly hope for the relationship between the White House and the military to be as healthy as possible, these types of games are likely here to stay.

Image: Tim Green. CC BY 2.0.