WASHINGTON -- As President Obama approaches a decision on the way forward in Afghanistan -- the most historically consequential choice of his presidency so far -- military leaders seem impressed with his decision-making process. During the next few weeks, Obama has scheduled considerable time to be personally involved in discussions. In the White House economy, presidential attention is the most valued commodity -- coveted, hoarded and stolen. Obama's engaged, deliberate style has fans in the military.
But there are also risks when arguments about military strategy are too public for too long. An enemy can try to influence the outcome of a debate with attacks and propaganda. Al-Qaeda's most recent video warns Europeans that they are about to be abandoned: "It won't be long until the dust of war clears in Afghanistan, at which point you won't find a trace of any American, because they will have gone away far beyond the Atlantic."
There are also risks for American military morale. Soldiers in Afghanistan are going outside the wire, dismounting from their vehicles and mingling with the people -- increasing their chances of being killed -- for the sake of a counterinsurgency approach that the president has publicly questioned and may now change. No one wants to be the last to die for the sake of yesterday's strategy.
Major military decisions require deliberation. The debate, however, should generally take place in private and produce outcomes with all deliberate speed. At some point soon, the seminar must end.
Obama's choice in Afghanistan is, in some ways, the spitting image of George W. Bush's decision on the surge in Iraq -- the choice between pursuing a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy or something less ambitious and costly. In other ways, it is a distorted, fun-house reflection. Bush's military advisers were more or less united on a course of action -- Gen. George Casey's "train and transition" approach -- that the president eventually rejected. It was a number of controversial troublemakers such as Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal who recommended a population security strategy. Because of their extraordinary success, the troublemakers have become the military establishment, more or less united in recommending a population security strategy for Afghanistan. But their critics still exist, inside the Pentagon and out.