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Michael Gerson on Obama's dysfunctional decision making

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, November 20, 2009

In the beginning, the Obama administration directed a spotlight toward its careful, thoughtful decision-making process on Afghanistan. National security meetings were announced, photographed and highlighted in background briefings to the media. President Obama would apply the methods of the academy to the art of war -- the University of Chicago meets West Point -- thus assuring a skittish public that deliberation had preceded decision.

Now the president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are desperately trying to jerk the spotlight away from a dysfunctional Afghan decision-making process in which chaos has preceded choice, complicating every possible outcome.

Gates said he is "appalled by the amount of leaking that has been going on," which would be, if the culprits are discovered, "a career-ender." Obama recently added, "I think I am angrier than Bob Gates about it." They should be appalled and angry at the process they created -- as should the rest of the country.

Sometimes government leaks are self-serving, reflecting the powerful passion of midlevel functionaries to appear in the know. But leaks in this process have been attempts to rig the outcome of a national security decision.

This summer, nameless White House officials began leaking their skepticism of plans for troop increases. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment, calling for a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, was leaked. Then a leak of internal government reviews on the poor state of the Afghan military and police forces. Then a leak from "informed sources" that Obama had settled on a troop increase of 34,000. Then the leak that Obama had rejected all the military options on the table and was insisting on refinements. Then the leak of two classified cables from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which cautioned against troop increases, leaving McChrystal, according to another nameless source, feeling "stabbed in the back."

The Afghan policy process has resulted in more leaks than Oktoberfest. Leaks are a form of disloyalty -- an attempt to box in the president of the United States, a mini-coup in which unelected officials attempt to substitute their judgment for the president's. Leaks increase tension and anger, then leave the losing side in a debate publicly humiliated and perhaps alienated from the outcome. Depending on that outcome, Obama will be vulnerable to charges of buckling to military pressure or disregarding the advice of his commanders.

Though leaks are bad for the president and the country, they are gifts for journalists and commentators, who often draw their purpose from the failures of others. We have learned that Obama's national security team is both deeply divided and playing for blood. Military-civilian tensions are growing and have become reflected on the ground in Afghanistan. One key to the success of the surge in Iraq was the close cooperation of Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of military operations, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who led the civilian efforts. McChrystal and Eikenberry seem to have a different relationship.

We have also learned that military and civilian timelines are quickly diverging. In his strategy memo sent on Aug. 30, McChrystal warned: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." At that time, I talked to administration officials who were hoping the buildup of troops would begin in earnest before the end of the year. Soon, three months will have passed since McChrystal made his dire assessment -- three months of leaks and recriminations that must give pause to our troops and encouragement to our enemies. While it is important to get a military decision right, it is also possible for the right decision to come too late.

It is not fair that large presidential choices must be made with insufficient time and information, but it is also not unusual. A dysfunctional process on Afghanistan has begun to narrow the range of good outcomes. The time and the options in Afghanistan are limited. "As an analogy," says David Kilcullen, an expert on counterinsurgency strategy, "you have a building on fire, and it's got a bunch of firemen inside. There are not enough firemen to put it out. You have to send in more or you have to leave. It is not appropriate to stand outside pontificating about not taking lightly the responsibility of sending firemen into harm's way. Either put in enough firemen to put the fire out or get out of the house."

mgerson@globalengage.org


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