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.
The civilian-military relationship is not a matter of the president reflexively trusting the military establishment or doubting it. It is always a matter of the president -- Lincoln, Truman, Bush, Obama -- picking the right general who understands the war and then supporting him to the hilt.
In this case, there is a considerable gap of credibility among contenders for this trust. The team led by Petraeus is fresh from dramatic counterinsurgency progress in Iraq and believes that similar advances may be possible in Afghanistan, with a proper strategy and sufficient resources. The team led by Vice President Joe Biden opposed the Iraq surge; Biden called it a "tragic mistake." He also voted against the first Gulf War, arguing "What vital interests of the United States justify sending young Americans to their deaths in the sands of Saudi Arabia?" And he displayed consistently poor judgment during the Cold War, opposing missile defenses and undermining resistance to communism in Central America. Biden must view himself as a combination of Kissinger and Clausewitz. But there is little basis for this self-regard.
Is it conceivable that Obama will overrule the advice of military commanders at the high point of their reputations? Yes, it is conceivable. But it is more likely that Obama will accept the counterinsurgency approach of his generals in principle, while making significant modifications in practice. Obama may publicly step away from the proposed 40,000 troop increase, accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police, and then gradually increase U.S. troop levels by smaller increments. He would gain praise from many for a wise, considered decision.
But this wise, considered decision could itself be a trap. If McChrystal is to be believed, America is not merely failing to win in Afghanistan; it is losing. It may require a jolt of resources to revive the patient and convince a skeptical American public that progress is possible. An incremental approach may simply bring defeat more slowly. And it will get much harder over time to ask Congress for additional resources if the middle way fails.
"Too often in Afghanistan," an administration official told me a few weeks ago, "tomorrow has looked just like yesterday." After Obama's decision is implemented, Afghanistan must somehow look different.