Balz's Take: On Afghanistan, Old Debates - and Dangers - Reemerge

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 11:30 AM

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was well intentioned when, on Monday, he urged military and civilian advisers to President Obama to keep their counsel private and not engage in a public debate over the administration's Afghanistan policy. That may help shut off some of the leaks that have fueled the discussion so far, but Obama faces a very clamorous -- and necessary -- public debate as he approaches a decision on whether to further escalate U.S. involvement there.

The debate, a defining moment for Obama, will take center stage in Washington again on Tuesday. The president's agenda includes a meeting with more than two dozen congressional leaders from both parties to discuss the war strategy. The group includes his rival from 2008, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the most prominent advocate for sending more troops, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who speaks for a liberal wing of her and Obama's party that is increasingly worried about increasing forces there.

Vice President Biden, who has argued against accepting outright the recommendation for more troops from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the Afghanistan commander, will be at the meeting with congressional leaders. His schedule Tuesday included a breakfast with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many more meetings could follow before Obama makes a decision.

Presidential advisers say Obama is trying to force a reappraisal of all strategic assumptions before committing himself to a possible new approach in Afghanistan just months after establishing a new post-Bush strategy that included more troops and the sacking of the then-commander on the ground in favor of McChrystal. The president, according to one official, came to last week's meeting with his top advisers armed with a list of questions, carefully written down in his precise handwriting, that were designed to generate a thorough airing of the choices available and the underlying analysis behind them.

When McChrystal's dire strategy memo was first published in The Washington Post, Obama's opponents pounced. Some Republican leaders warned that any delay in accepting McChrystal's analysis and adopting his badly kept secret recommendation for up to 40,000 more troops would endanger all the forces already on the ground in Afghanistan. Obama, they argued, needed to act quickly and decisively -- and to accept the advice of his military commanders.

Things have cooled a bit since then. It's clear Obama intends to take more time to make this decision and now apparently has the space to do that. Whatever McChrystal's intentions when he spoke out last week in London, in remarks interpreted as trying to put public pressure on the president, the episode has worked to Obama's short-term benefit.

Gates's speech Monday, in which he said presidential advisers ought to offer their input "candidly but privately," has helped to reestablish the chain of command. Everyone is trying to minimize what was being portrayed as a sharp difference of opinion between the president and his commander in Afghanistan. But the debate continues to flourish, as it should.

Obama makes this decision buffeted by memories of what took place in the previous administration. One involves the question of presidential leadership and is built on images of strength and decisiveness -- George W. Bush at his best, the 43rd president's defenders would say.

The longer Obama waits to make this decision, the more he will be subjected to questions about whether he is tough enough and resolute enough to be commander in chief. This was the very question that dogged him throughout his campaign for president. Did this relatively young and even more inexperienced politician have the skills needed to lead the country in a time of war and terrorist threats?

Obama's political advisers knew he could not surpass McCain on this question, only that he had to satisfy the public that he had enough of what they wanted in a commander in chief to give them the confidence to vote for him. He crossed that threshold sometime between July and October of last year and the economic collapse took care of the rest of McCain's hopes of winning the presidency.

Now the old debates are back. It is once again McCain v. Obama on the question of military strategy. In January 2007, McCain championed the surge policy in Iraq; Obama opposed it. When, by the fall of 2008, it became clear that the surge had at least helped reduce the violence in Iraq (even if it did not bring political reconciliation), Obama struggled with questions about whether he was wrong in his opposition.

Today, McCain argues that counterinsurgency worked in Iraq and will work in Afghanistan. Obama, having never decisively embraced counterinsurgency in Iraq, is at least exploring other options that would not require a major commitment of additional forces.

These are important differences worth debate and analysis by the experts. But for Obama, the risk is that this decision will be framed simply as a question of his fortitude -- his willingness to make a tough decision (as he seemingly did last spring in announcing an initial troop increase) and then stick to it. Not just his political opponents at home but leaders around the world will make potentially lasting judgments about the president's strength based on what happens over the next weeks or months as he weighs his options.

The other memory against which this decision will be made could be called George W. Bush at his worst, which is to say a pell-mell rush toward action without a full and fair airing of opposing views, without more skeptical analysis of what military and intelligence officials claim to know and without an open and forthright discussion with the American people about what is known and unknown about whatever course is chosen.

Recall the infamous Downing Street Memo from July 2002, which described "a perceptible shift in attitude" toward war in Iraq by Bush administration officials and said "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." In that climate, war became inevitable, dissenters were shunted to the sidelines and neither Congress nor the media forced a fuller examination of the underlying assumptions that led to the invasion in the spring of 2003. The country paid a huge price for those attitudes and the mistakes to which they led.

Now it is Obama's time. His challenge is not just to get the policy right, though that is most important. But it is to get to that decision after the fullest possible debate, public and private, and emerge with the public confident that he will protect the country -- and that he has both the judgment and the strength to bring this war in Afghanistan to a satisfactory conclusion.

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