Notes From Babel

Obama’s Deliberative Delay on Afghanistan

with 4 comments

When it comes to rolling out sweeping domestic and economic changes, President Obama has been quite clear that he refuses to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Strangely, however, it seems he’s declined to apply this approach to the war in Afghanistan.   Surely if ever the doctrine applied it is in the role of making strategic military choices, where delaying sends disarming messages to key allies and puts our soldiers at risk.  Surely it would suggest that a president respectfully decline the opportunity to delay in order to observe the polls and wait for the opinions of bloggers and thinktanks “to unfold within the public arena.”

And yet here is Andrew Sullivan today on Obama’s dignified and “adult” “dithering” on the Afghanistan question:

What we are seeing here, I suspect, is what we see everywhere with Obama: a relentless empiricism in pursuit of a particular objective and a willingness to let the process take its time. The very process itself can reveal – not just to Obama, but to everyone – what exactly the precise options are. Instead of engaging in adolescent tests of whether a president is “tough” or “weak”, we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored. He is, moreover, not taking the decision process outside the public arena. He is allowing it to unfold within the public arena. Others, moreover, are allowed to take the lead: McChrystal, or Netanyahu, or Pelosi, in the case of Af-Pak, Israel-Palestine and health insurance, respectively. Obama encourages the process but hangs back, broadly – and persistently – pursuing certain objectives without tipping his hand on specifics or timing.

So the troop question is rather like the public option question.

Obama’s position – almost a year into his presidency – is yet to be revealed. The president waits, prods, allows the parties to reveal their hands, and keeps his final detailed position to himself. By allowing the debate to continue in public, he also tries to get the public more, rather than less, involved. So we too get to show our hand as the debate continues. And the polls show Americans pretty evenly – and understandably – divided  on the excruciating and ultimately prudential question of what to do next.

This is just the mistake that too many Americans make these days—to suggest that decisions in executing foreign wars should be subject to the same political process as domestic legislation.  Is it that difficult to understand the differences here?  The President is the only person in our country vested with the authority to make such decisions.  And it is vested in him precisely because it is so important that he not “allow[] the debate to continue in public.”  Wars are not conducted by committee.  Strategy is not heightened by awaiting the latest Facebook poll.

Here is Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist no. 70 on the role of our unitary executive:

There is an idea, which is not without its advocates, that a vigorous executive is inconsistent with the genius of republican government. The enlightened well-wishers to this species of government must at least hope that the supposition is destitute of foundation; since they can never admit its truth, without at the same time admitting the condemnation of their own principles. Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy. Every man the least conversant in Roman history knows how often that republic was obliged to take refuge in the absolute power of a single man, under the formidable title of dictator, as well against the intrigues of ambitious individuals who aspired to the tyranny, and the seditions of whole classes of the community whose conduct threatened the existence of all government, as against the invasions of external enemies who menaced the conquest and destruction of Rome.

There can be no need, however, to multiply arguments or examples on this head. A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.

UPDATE: McArdle says something similar to Sullivan—though with less creepy hero-worshiping—here.  To be clear, of course one wants Obama to get the right answer here, and there are a lot of factors at play.  But deliberation is one thing.  My own tendency is towards more deliberation rather than rash action.  And certainly one wants Obama to have deliberators on his team.  But at some level, an organization—and certainly a nation—needs someone who will recognize that swift action is needed, and end what would otherwise be endless deliberations, and act on the best information one has at hand.  That yin to the deliberator’s yang may well enough be called, the “decider.”  And you tell whether the deliberator or the decider needs more courage to take on the political flak that comes with his respective role.


Written by Tim Kowal

November 12, 2009 at 10:24 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Planning the “what if” orderly transition of stuff to Afghanistan government is a waste of time. We have to win a war, in order to worry about the “next step”. Our military will be held on a choke leash and sitting ducks for attack while this process continues. President and VP act like senators scheduling meetings, and evaluating meetings at another meeting. General Grant was selected by Lincoln to end the war. Lincoln kept in close touch, and visited the battle lines. Our President wants to have meetings, instead of visiting our general.


    November 14, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    • Moreover, it’s not as if Obama has anything better to do. As much as he thinks he’s doing God’s work by stuffing health care reform on a population that doesn’t want it and taking over the auto industry, the job the constitution gives him to do has to do with national security and managing foreign affairs. As Victor Davis Hanson points out, the only headaches he’s got in that arena are the ones he’s creating himself.

      Tim Kowal

      November 15, 2009 at 10:08 am

  2. Tim, a tip of the hobo cap to you and your like minded freedom fighters. This country called upon volunteers to be minute men to keep freedom more than a dream! Glad you and your peers are ready for the fight of our lifetime to defend the principles of freedom in our own country!


    November 15, 2009 at 10:26 am

  3. […] occupied with being not sure whether to send support to our troops in Afghanistan, Obama responded to the Fort Hood tragedy by joining ranks with the “not sure” […]

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