- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

President Obama’s weeks-long review of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has turned the normally secretive process of deciding how many troops to deploy to a war zone and how best to use them into an oddly public affair that has been pored over day after day by television analysts, scrutinized by his critics and sized up by the nation’s allies and enemies.

As Mr. Obama presided over the fourth meeting of his war council in two weeks at the White House on Friday, even the enemy was trying to influence the outcome. While the White House sizes up whether the Taliban is a threat to the United States or whether it would re-create a safe haven in Afghanistan for al Qaeda, the group placed a statement on Web sites this week saying it does “not have any agenda to harm other countries.”

“That was a political message to President Obama in an attempt to change the terms of the debate,” said Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University who served as a top adviser to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command.

“You can see all sides ratcheting up the pressure on the president - more pressure than would perhaps otherwise be there if this process was going on behind closed doors,” Mr. Mansoor said.

The president has planned five meetings of his national security team that take place in the sanctuary of the Situation Room as he tries to decide whether to deploy tens of thousands of additional troops to execute a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, or to settle with a smaller military footprint and instead focus on surgical strikes against al Qaeda.

The White House has announced each meeting in advance, described who would attend, provided a public readout afterward to explain what transpired and even distributed photos. Beyond that, the positions being staked out by key figures, including his top military and political advisers, have swiftly made their way into the public domain.

Allies of the president have praised this process, saying it is the most sensible way for a leader to plot a successful course for such a treacherous mission. They see Mr. Obama’s insistence on a deliberative process as an unblinking approach to assessing the facts.

“I think that he is right to emphasize that he is taking this very seriously,” said Parag Khanna, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation who served as a campaign adviser to Mr. Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy.

It is what many on the left consider to be an anti-Bush view that facts, data, processes and intellectual, reasoned assessment should be the rule for decision-making, and not a reliance on gut or instinct, as President George W. Bush was often characterized as doing.

There is a pride inside the White House at the fact that Mr. Obama has led each of the roughly three-hour war council sessions, which have delved into granular detail on the different aspects of the war in Afghanistan and along the border with Pakistan.

But what is thoughtful consideration to the president is weakness to his critics, many of whom see him bowing to political pressure from his liberal base. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer on Friday compared Mr. Obama to the tortured and indecisive Shakespearean character of Hamlet.

“Whatever this is, it isn’t leadership,” said Elliot Abrams, who served as a senior foreign policy adviser to Mr. Bush and to President Reagan.

“Leadership isn’t about how many meetings you hold in the Situation Room, it is about taking hard decisions regardless of what the David Axelrods advise you,” Mr. Abrams said, referring to the president’s senior political adviser, who has attended each of the strategy review meetings, along with other top political advisers.

In the picture of Oct. 2 war council session in the secure White House Situation Room, political advisers such as Mr. Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs are present, but are sitting against the wall, taking notes, not at the table as part of the discussion. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who is intimately involved in the politics and policy of the Obama White House, has been at the table, but that is regular procedure for national security council meetings.

Mr. Bush often delegated information gathering so that he could play the role of “the decider,” Mr. Mansoor said, but was heavily involved in the review process that led to the surge of 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007. There were fewer leaks, Mr. Mansoor said, but a vocal debate raged outside the White House gates.

“The strategic debates taking place within the administration were being also debated in the media and by the media,” he said. “It was despite that outside pressure on the president, not because of it, that President Bush put more troops into Iraq.”

In Mr. Obama’s case, though, the longer the process has drawn on, the more it has created opportunities for outside forces to attempt to influence the outcome. In addition to the Taliban statement, antiwar groups have stepped up their protests. Longtime Bush protester Cindy Sheehan returned to the White House gate with her megaphone to urge Mr. Obama to withdraw from Afghanistan. Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, called on the president to set a timetable for drawing down American forces there.

There is “some pressure on the administration to not only get it right but to get it quickly,” said Stephen Hadley, who was national security adviser to Mr. Bush in his second term. Mr. Hadley praised the White House’s deliberative process but said it is a disadvantage to have it be so public.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost to Mr. Obama in last year’s presidential election, urged the president last week to make a decision with “deliberate haste.”

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who opposed the invasion of Iraq but supported Mr. Bush’s decision to surge more troops there in 2007, said “there’s a problem with taking too much time.”

“I think if you wait, if you take too much time, it looks like you’re dithering and you’re indecisive,” Gen. Zinni said in an interview with CNN. “And our allies, as well as our enemies and our friends in the region, will all begin to wonder if we’re really committed to this.”

In fact, the Taliban on Thursday claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 17 in an attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The White House denies that it was forced to take its review public after an assessment by the top military commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was leaked to the media Sept. 21.

But in the three weeks since then, the public and media have focused with increasing intensity on what the president will do, and the White House has very publicly previewed each of the four national security council meetings.

The review is not expected to end for at least another two weeks. There are indications that the White House may be waiting to see the results of two studies looking into fraud and corruption in Afghanistan’s national elections, which are “several days” from being finished, though the White House denies that this is a consideration.

Anthony Cordesman, a foreign-policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued that the publicity of the debate is actually positive.

“We do need a national debate to build as much understanding and agreement as we can over how we go to war, and then over every major change in our strategy that follows,” said Mr. Cordesman, adding that the focus on troop numbers is woefully inadequate.

Nonetheless, there is strong public momentum against a troop increase. The most recent poll, a survey of 2,630 Americans by Quinnipiac University released last week, showed only 38 percent support for increasing U.S. troops in Afghanistan, with 28 percent wanting to decrease the troop presence and 21 percent supporting no change.

The poll did show that 52 percent say the United States should be fighting the war in Afghanistan, with 37 percent in disagreement.

In addition, the more vocal left-wing elements of the president’s base are already grousing about the prospect of any troop increase and would be incensed by such a move, creating even more problems in the run up to next year’s congressional midterms.

Tony Fratto, a Bush White House communications adviser, said the Obama White House should “clear all of that clutter out, make a decision of what needs to be done in the national interest, and then go out and make their case.”

Indeed, Mr. Gibbs signaled this week that the White House would continue its pattern of relying on Mr. Obama’s personal appeal and rhetorical skills, having him give a major speech or series of speeches to sell his decision when he has reached a conclusion.

“Whatever decision the president makes with his team, I think explaining and talking that through with the American people will certainly obviously be an important step in this process,” Mr. Gibbs said.

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