Monday, November 16, 2009

The Strange Dichotomy of Obama's Decision Making

In a thought provoking piece for the L.A. Times, Doyle McManus suggests that Obama needs to rethink his Afghanistan re-thinking.
The decision about whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan was never going to be easy, but events -- and a collision of egos in Kabul -- have conspired to make it even harder.

Obama was right to insist on a full review of whether U.S. interests are better served by expanding the American military footprint in Afghanistan or shrinking it.

But now, two months into his second "comprehensive policy review," after eight Cabinet-level meetings and several slipped target dates, the president still hasn't made up his mind.

In George W. Bush, we had a president who shot first and asked questions later. In Barack Obama, we have a president who asks the right questions but hesitates to pull the trigger.
While I might debate the characterization of President Bush, as well as whether President Obama is asking the right questions, I don't think that the President is doing himself any favors by spending so much time looking for a perfect solution, one that demonstrates committment to Afghanistan, but preserves the ability for the U.S. to take an "off-ramp" and get out of Afghanistan.

Anyone who has been in a position of leadership knows that you almost rarely get to make important decisions with perfect information. Indeed, most decisions are made in the complete absence of even great information--if you have good information you have to consider yourself lucky. When it comes to foreign policy decisions like this one, even decent information would be a god-send.

But what I find most interesting is not the hesitation President Obama is exhibiting, but something a little more telling--his indecision shows a lack of confidence that is not present in other matters of his Administration.

Case in point. President Obama is absolutely convinced that health care reform is necessary including a massive intervention into a major sector of the economy. His belief is certain despite the plethora of evidence that would suggest he be a little more circumspect in his intervention. The President has put forth a goal (whether that goal is wise or attainable is not relevant in this context) but has left it to others to establish the methods for achieving that goal. Fine--I don't like the process, but it is a process.

But when it comes to Afghanistan, the president seems incapable of expressing a goal for the country and then leaving it to others (namely his commanders and diplomats) to accomplish that goal.

Why the difference in approaches?

I don't buy the answer that goes something like this "Well, with Afghanistan he is committing troops to harm's." It is true that Afghanistan would mean the committment of troops, but the counterargument is that if the President commits even 100,000 more troops, the impact on Afghanistan may be great, and the impact on most of America in the short term will be relatively small--confined largely to the military and the military families. Most Americans right now don't give a toss about Afghanistan, could explain its importance in the grand scheme of things and it is hard to believe that a majority of American will care next year either.

But the President has committed the country to a domestic path than will affect tens of millions in a very real, very economic, indeed a very personal way. He has apparently done so in the sincere belief that it is the right thing for the country. If we are talking about net effect on the American people, it would seem that the domestic agenda carries the greater potential for negative impact that committing or not committing more troops to Afghanistan.

The difference in approaches to this problem lies in Obama himself. The President cannot seem to muster the same audacity in decision making he demonstrates on domestic issues to foreign policy issues. But it also runs deeper. The President's decision making apparatus (internal or external) is woefully inadequate.

Most leaders will tell you that they make decision based on information they have in front of them, wish they had more information, but understand that they have to make a decision often in the absence of information. The president has made a domestic policy decision in the presence of information that would caution against his action. At the same time, the President faced with the knowledge that he doesn't have any information on Afghanistan, refuses to make a decision.

In one case he ignores the information he has and in the second, he seeks information he can't get. In both cases, we have a flawed decision making process. What it means for us is that we have three more years of bad decision making ahead of us.

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