WASHINGTON -- In the beginning, the Obama administration directed a spotlight toward its careful, thoughtful decision-making process on Afghanistan. National security meetings were announced, photographed and highlighted in background briefings to the media. President Obama would apply the methods of the academy to the art of war -- the University of Chicago meets West Point -- thus assuring a skittish public that deliberation had preceded decision.
Now the president and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are desperately trying to jerk the spotlight away from a dysfunctional Afghan decision-making process in which chaos has preceded choice, complicating every possible outcome.
Gates is "appalled by the amount of leaking that has been going on," which would be, if the culprits are discovered, "a career-ender." Obama recently added, "I think I am angrier than Bob Gates about it." They should be appalled and angry at the process they created -- as should the rest of the country.
Sometimes government leaks are merely self-serving, reflecting the powerful passion of midlevel functionaries to appear in the know. But leaks in this process have been attempts to rig the outcome of a national security decision.
This summer, nameless White House officials began leaking their skepticism of plans for troop increases. Then Gen. Stanley McChrystal's assessment, calling for a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency strategy, was leaked. Then a leak of internal government reviews on the poor state of the Afghan military and police forces. Then a leak from "informed sources" that Obama had settled on a troop increase of 34,000. Then the leak that Obama had rejected all the military options on the table and was insisting on refinements. Then the leak of two classified cables from Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which cautioned against troop increases, leaving McChrystal, according to another nameless source, feeling "stabbed in the back."
The Afghan policy process has resulted in more leaks than Oktoberfest. Leaks are a form of disloyalty -- an attempt to box in the president of the United States, a mini-coup in which unelected officials attempt to substitute their judgment for the president's own. Leaks increase tension and anger, then leave the losing side in a debate publicly humiliated and perhaps alienated from the outcome. Depending on that outcome, Obama will be vulnerable to charges of buckling to military pressure or disregarding the advice of his commanders.