Michael Gerson

The Obama administration's 10-month Afghanistan policy review last year will be long-remembered as an example of botched executive decision-making. After a false start that resulted in no consensus, even in the president's own mind, Afghan policy process 2.0 was dominated by a civilian-military disagreement that produced a steady supply of press leaks and the unauthorized release of classified documents. Staffers within the White House and the military took up cudgels on behalf of their principals, with little of the restraint shown by the principals themselves. Arguments became camps. A team of rivals ceased to be a team at all. And the process never seemed to end.

In December, Obama announced an expanded mission in Afghanistan to be achieved on an 18-month deadline. The military interpreted that deadline as aspirational -- a way to pressure the Afghan government into assuming greater responsibility while keeping future military options open. White House officials saw the deadline as hard and fast -- a way to reassure restive Democrats on Capitol Hill and eventually get out of a messy conflict, no matter the outcome. This ambiguity carries a danger -- that the Taliban will think America can be outlasted or forced into desperate deals that betray the Afghan people.

On Afghanistan, Obama seems genuinely conflicted. As a foreign policy pragmatist, he understands the unacceptable strategic costs of American failure in the extremist heartland. As a former anti-war senator and the peace candidate in the last election, he cannot bring himself to fully commit to an unpopular war. So he has told the military, in essence: We will give you more resources but limited time. This formulation, however, involves an inherent division between "us" -- a White House with limited patience -- and "them," a military that would be blamed for failure. This is a typical pose for Congress, demanding results from the military in exchange for additional time and resources. It is not a typical attitude for a commander in chief, who normally identifies more closely with the fate, views and goals of the men and women at his command.

Does the appointment of Petraeus resolve this ambiguity? It certainly lessens it. Testifying in Congress last week, Petraeus said, "it is important that July 2011 be seen for what it is, the date when a process begins based on conditions, not the date when the U.S. heads for the exits." The selection of Petraeus can only be seen as an endorsement of this view.

But it is another, necessary act of leadership for Obama to end this ambiguity in his own voice.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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