Ricks and the Afghanistan decision process
Tom Ricks asks today: No matter what you think President Obama should decide on Afghanistan, what do you think of his decision-making process? He appeared to make a decision in March, and then indicated five months later that he hadn’t, and then engaged in a very public discussion that appears to pit the White House ...
No matter what you think President Obama should decide on Afghanistan, what do you think of his decision-making process? He appeared to make a decision in March, and then indicated five months later that he hadn’t, and then engaged in a very public discussion that appears to pit the White House against U.S. generals. I don’t know anyone who is comfortable with how he has handled this. Do you?
Well, yeah. On the question of the overall deliberation, I would give the President extremely high marks. They know that they are making a very important, difficult decision and they are appropriately taking their time to think it through from all directions. They have solicited all points of view, and have refused to be railroaded by either the advocates of escalation or by the minimalist skeptics. This is exactly how such a deliberative process is supposed to work — especially since nobody really claims that the situation is currently so urgent that taking a few weeks will make a material difference.
Then there’s "appears to pit the White House against U.S. generals." And here, I certainly don’t think the blame lies with the White House. The public debate was driven by the leak of the "secret" report written for General McChrystal by a group of think-tankers. It was inflamed by what appeared to be inappropriate public lobbying on its behalf by General McChrystal, which led to a public rebuke by the Secretary of Defense and others. I’m actually not as sure as others that McChrystal is to blame for this. The narrative of "White House against U.S. generals" has been actively advanced not by General McChrystal himself, but by escalation-advocates hoping to push the White House to decide in his favor. That the escalation advocates decided to try to play the "Generals against the White House card" doesn’t reflect very well on them, but it’s hard to see how the White House could have responded differently once it happened.
So, in response to Ricks I would say that I think the White House has handled this process as well as it could have. If they decide on a policy with which I disagree I will be uncomfortable but I will also be convinced that they gave all serious alternatives full consideration and that they go into it with eyes wide open. I also think that the public debate has sharpened everyone’s understanding of the stakes of the decision, and of the problems with each of the approaches. Not every moment has been handled perfectly, but overall this is a model of how such decisions should be approached.