It’s a fair question. A leader who chooses not to heed the advice of the experts who work for him runs the risk not only of being wrong, but of losing the trust of those experts on future decisions. That’s especially the case if the wisdom he passes over comes from someone like Petraeus, who’s widely regarded as a success in his role.
But while there is some danger in Obama’s decision not to follow his generals’ request for a little more fighting time for the 23,000 surge troops (who will go home next year after this year’s 10,000-troop drawdown), the repeated critiques hammering the president on this issue are overdone. First off, it’s just as much a leader’s job to heed the advice of the experts who work for him as it is to use that advice to make his own decision about the best way forward. Blindly harkening deputies’ requests without considering other factors is just as irresponsible as ignoring them.
In addition, anyone who’s ever worked within a tight budget knows that no one gives up resources, people or, as the military calls them, boots on the ground without putting up a fight. If you’re the manager of a long-standing project that’s hemorrhaging cash and showing little sign of coming to an end, of course you’re going to ask for a little more time with a full staff of people to see things through. And if you’re the CEO of that company, of course you’d be wise to start pulling the plug.
Comparing the war in Afghanistan to a software project or a product launch may be a weak analogy. But the fundamental leadership issue is the same. It’s human nature for people—even expert, military-hardened people—to protect their turf and want more resources, more time and more staff to help them succeed and help prove their worth. That’s especially the case when it comes to something they’ve been working incredibly hard toward for years, and nowhere is that more the case than the Afghanistan war, which now holds the record as America’s longest.
That’s not to say that military officials speaking out for a more extended drawdown next year don’t genuinely see a real need for it. And the defense officials who are reportedly complaining about political aims in Obama’s summer 2012 timeline may very well be right that the election is playing a role in the president’s decision.
But the critiques of Obama that he’s overruled his smartest generals or passed over their wise judgment is a limited view of the president’s job as a leader, and doesn’t account for the inevitable turf protections that take place whenever people and resources are at stake. Perhaps the president will be wrong come next year, and they’ll be right. But that’s the risk and the responsibility that comes with being the commander in chief.
More from On Leadership:
Mark Johnson: Defense innovation for a new era
Maj. Gen. John Batiste: What ails America
Steven Pearlstein: With Joint Chiefs turnover, a question of dissenters and team players