Only a wreck on the highway is more exciting than watching a president argue with himself. Not even the gruesome sight of presidential gore can overcome the instinct to stare at the gloomy and ponder the morbid.
Barack Obama, like the "progressives" he represents, is proud of a mind so open that his brains are forever at risk of falling out. He first said the war in Afghanistan was a war the West could not afford to lose. But that was way back when, and he changed his mind. Then he changed it again, and now nobody, maybe not even the president himself, knows what he thinks. This president's resolve, crucial though it is to the nation's security and survival, is always a work in progress.
All presidents are fond of saying the door to the Oval Office is always open, advice is welcome from all, no point of view will be ignored, the opinion of every American is valued, blah, blah, blah. This is happy talk, usually sufficient only as a strategy for dithering and delay. A Praetorian guard can make sure that anyone who takes the happy talk for the real stuff is kept far, far away from a president absorbed in his indecision.
This definitely includes the leader of the soldiers whom the commander in chief put in harm's way in Afghanistan. You might think the president talks frequently with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of both U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. But if you think that, you don't understand how this president works. Gen. McChrystal's five-page Commander's Summary of what's going on in Afghanistan, prepared for the president, came forcefully to the president's attention with the leak of the document, in which the general warned that "failure to gain the initiative and reverse momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) - while Afghan security capacity matures - risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."
Joe Biden, the vice president who thinks of himself as the strategist for all seasons, says what the general ought to do is "narrow the mission." He would just send drones and Special Forces to expand the war into Pakistan. Gen. McChrystal, in remarks to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says such a strategy is "shortsighted" and would make Afghanistan something of a "chaos-istan," a sanctuary for terrorism once the government falls to the Taliban. For his pains, he was summoned by the president to a 25-minute chewing out aboard Air Force One on the tarmac at Copenhagen airport. A president is rightly jealous of maintaining civilian discipline over the military, and Mr. Obama was having a particularly hard day in Copenhagen, but the frustrated general has been having a hard time, too, just getting the president's attention.
And it's not just Gen. McChrystal. The chief of the British general staff told the London Sunday Telegraph over the weekend that failure in Afghanistan would have an "intoxicating effect" on militant Islam and the consequences to the West would be "enormous" and "unimaginable."
Said Gen. Sir David Richards: "If al Qaeda and the Taliban believe they have defeated us - what next? Would they stop at Afghanistan? Pakistan is clearly a tempting target not least because it is a nuclear-weaponed state, and that is a terrifying prospect. Even if only a few of those nuclear weapons fall into their hands, believe me they would use them. The recent airlines plot has reminded us that there are people out there who would happily blow all of us up."
Sir David said he sounded his warning, unprecedented in Britain, because he believes that the public "and even members of the government" are not awake to the "enormous risks" if the war in Afghanistan is lost.
The White House, suddenly aware of its growing reputation for dithering incompetence, tried to calm the controversy Monday with the assurance that the military bureaucracy is alive, well and functioning. The president has, too, read the general's gloomy assessment, the White House press secretary said, but the president doesn't expect a "formal" request to arrive for "a little bit." The president is not yet focused on "resource decisions."
The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year, and Americans are impatient. Maybe in the end the president will decide to cut and run. Maybe that will be the popular decision. Maybe "narrowing the focus" is a better strategy. Maybe sending more troops is even better. But further dithering won't impress anybody, and asking an American soldier to be the last man to die in an abandoned cause is too much for any president, no matter how pretty the speech, to ask.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.