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Belmont Club

Kilcullen vs Sullivan

November 13th, 2009 - 9:39 am

Barack Obama says he won’t be rushed into making a decision about Afghanistan. The New York Times reports that Obama wants to show that whatever he decides, whenever he decides it, that he has considered all of the options carefully. “President Obama has not made a decision about his new military strategy for Afghanistan. And the White House is happy to say so.”

The White House has been eager to show that Mr. Obama is engaged in extensive deliberations before making what is likely to be one of the most debated decisions of his presidency. Drawing on studies of how decisions were made to escalate the war in Vietnam, Mr. Obama and his aides seem intent on showing the nation and the world that he is not being rushed by the military, nor making a judgment without considering the long-term implications.

However, one of the men who played a key intellectual role in formulating the counterinsurgency plan in Iraq says that President Obama’s indecision is risking a disaster on the scale of the Suez debacle not only for the US, but for NATO. The Guardian reports:

David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading authorities on counter-insurgency and an adviser to the British government as well as the US state department, said Obama’s delay in reaching a decision over extra troops had been “messy”. He said it not only worried US allies but created uncertainty the Taliban could exploit.

Speaking in an interview with the Guardian, he compared the president to someone “pontificating” over whether to send enough firefighters into a burning building to put a fire out. …

Kilcullen expressed concern that Obama might deny McChrystal the 40,000 extra troops and split the difference between the four options, the kind of fudge common in domestic politics.

“Time is running out for us to make a decision. We can either put in enough troops to control the environment or we can credibly communicate our intention to leave. Either could work. Splitting the difference is not the way to go,” Kilcullen said.

“It feels to me that all these options are dangerously close to the middle ground and we have to consider whether the middle ground is a good place to be. The middle ground is a good place on domestic issues, but not on strategy. You either commit to D-Day and invade the continent or you get Suez. Half-measures end up with Suez. Do it or not do it.”

But Andrew Sullivan calls the inentional delays proof “that we have a President”. In his view the President is imposing a “relentless empiricism” on the decision-making process.

The news that Obama has refused to sign off on any of the four major options presented to him in Afghanistan reminds me of why he was elected president. This critical decision – arguably the most critical of his young presidency – is one that will not be rushed the way such decisions often are. His insistence that the civilian branch truly control policy there and that empire not be passively accepted as a fait accompli are real signs of strength in the struggle to recalibrate American foreign policy. Can you imagine Bush ever holding out like this on the military?

One of the real reasons why Kilcullen’s Habemus Pablum may be more correct than Andrew Sullivan’s Habemus Papa is that Barack Obama is reviewing his own policy. In March 2009 the long time critic of the White House during the Bush administration drew on his insights and an extensive policy review which he commissioned to announce his own Afghan Policy, which can viewed verbatim here. It begins with these dramatic words:

Good morning. Today, I am announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This marks the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office. My Administration has heard from our military commanders and diplomats. We have consulted with the Afghan and Pakistani governments; with our partners and NATO allies; and with other donors and international organizations. And we have also worked closely with members of Congress here at home. Now, I’d like to speak clearly and candidly to the American people. … So let me be clear …

… has now subtly altered itself to ‘let me be clear that I am going to think carefully about revising my own plan’. Gerard Vanderleun observes that President Obama is being hailed in the left-wing blogosphere as a cool and supremely rational President who will not be rushed into doing anything but asks, how can we distinguish from mere dithering or worse, the infliction of a death by a thousand cuts on the US expeditionary enterprise?

Veterans of dysfunctional corporations will recognize the Obama style as the one in which upper management is fond of giving middle management “All the responsibility, none of the authority, and zero resources.” It’s a time-tested recipe for failure and demoralization while maintaining an aloof, “concerned,” and above the fray posture on the part of the CEO. It is what is being done to the US military, day in and day out, in Afghanistan and, as such, works to Obama’s favor as long as it can be done slowly and without alarm.

The spectacle of the Obama taking months to understand what is wrong with his own painstakingly crafted handiwork himself might appear “Presidential” to Andrew Sullivan, but it does raise the question of why after taking months to get it wrong we should have any confidence that Barack Obama should do any better now.  One possibiity that must surely be considered, and yet which has been ruled out of bounds, is that the decision maker himself is incompetent. But that’s for him to judge, it seems. Sullivan conclusion that Obama’s application of “relentless empiricism” has broadened his mind and led even him to think that “the troop question is rather like the public option question” makes you wonder whether there isn’t some fundamental problem of context that is being missed.

Just kidding.

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