The war in Afghanistan is all over the news, and one ongoing story that has taken center stage is the drawn-​​out public decision-​​making process going on inside the White House over what America’s ulti­mate strategy should be. It’s a story that includes pres­i­den­tial advi­sors, Con­gres­sional Democ­rats, and gen­erals openly at odds over policy, and a pres­i­dent who appears to be hes­i­tating from fol­lowing through on ear­lier dec­la­ra­tions of policy. Polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor David Schmitt, whose exper­tise includes inter­na­tional rela­tions and national secu­rity policy, dis­cusses Obama’s lead­er­ship on the war.

Is it unusual for an admin­is­tra­tion to allow the process of decision-​​making on such an impor­tant issue as Afghanistan to play out so openly?

In mat­ters of going to war and in the con­duct of war, this kind of public scrutiny, leaks from inside the White House, and so forth, are not unique. The deci­sion by Pres­i­dent George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq and the deci­sion to mount a surge in 2007 received a great deal of public attention.

During the Vietnam War, the pub­li­ca­tion in 1971 of excerpts from top-​​secret Pen­tagon Papers demon­strated that the exec­u­tive branch had mis­rep­re­sented the scope of the war, and this decep­tion con­tributed to rising public and con­gres­sional oppo­si­tion to the war. Given the unpre­dictability and high costs of war, it is appro­priate that there is an oppor­tu­nity for the press and for public opinion to be a factor.

Do the head­lines that indi­cate con­tin­uing pres­i­den­tial rethinking of strategy make Obama appear weak and vacillating?

Pres­i­dent Obama may appear weak and vac­il­lating, and it is a legit­i­mate ques­tion to ask whether he is tough enough for the job. This appear­ance could pro­duce some loss of public sup­port, but most thoughtful leaders of public opinion who are not trying to score polit­ical points will see these delib­er­a­tions as demon­strating responsibility.

Last Sunday, for example, the con­ser­v­a­tive colum­nist George Will indi­cated on “This Week” hosted by George Stephanopoulos, that he thought the Obama administration’s careful delib­er­a­tion on the issue was appro­priate. He fur­ther sug­gested that the last Bush admin­is­tra­tion would have been well advised to act with greater delib­er­a­tion regarding the deci­sion to attack Iraq over nonex­is­tent weapons of mass destruction.

Does the drawn-​​out process cou­pled with the public infighting in the admin­is­tra­tion give Repub­li­cans fodder to make the claim that Obama’s inex­pe­ri­ence in for­eign policy decision-​​making is showing?

A careful review of the sit­u­a­tion does not indi­cate inex­pe­ri­ence in decision-​​making, but rather nec­es­sary pru­dence. In my opinion, Pres­i­dent Bush was insuf­fi­ciently ana­lyt­ical when faced with these sorts of decisions.

Nat­u­rally, Pres­i­dent Obama will be deciding policy based on the inher­ently lim­ited knowl­edge avail­able. So there is no guar­antee that the out­come will be suc­cessful, or that the war is winnable. But it’s obvi­ously much better to care­fully con­sider the sit­u­a­tion. It seems unlikely that a few weeks delay will do sig­nif­i­cant harm, and it’s wiser than rushing into a wrong-​​headed decision.

How does Afghanistan affect Obama’s image as a leader in the domestic polit­ical realm, and our standing with our allies and ene­mies abroad?

On the domestic front, Pres­i­dent Obama may have given the appear­ance of weak lead­er­ship on health care reform, so, how­ever rational, his delib­er­a­tions regarding more troops for Afghanistan could con­tribute to a rep­u­ta­tion for indecisiveness.

I believe most U.S. allies should view his careful review as quite appro­priate. The Tal­iban and Al Qaeda, on the other hand, may view the president’s delib­er­a­tions as a sign of weakness.

One of the costs of democ­racy is that it some­times takes longer to make deci­sions, and there is usu­ally some open dis­cus­sion about impor­tant issues that can give our ene­mies useful intel­li­gence. This open­ness may appear as weak­ness to total­i­tarian ene­mies like Al Qaeda, but it is usu­ally a source of strength in the long run.

Our com­mander in Afghanistan, Gen­eral Stanley A. McChrystal, is known to favor a sig­nif­i­cant troop surge in Afghanistan, which seemed to be in line with the president’s ear­lier thinking on the war. Yet Obama has appeared luke­warm to McChrystal’s posi­tion. What’s going on?

I think he is simply in the process of clar­i­fying the issue so that he can make a respon­sible deci­sion. A pres­i­dent who blindly lis­tens to his mil­i­tary com­man­ders or anyone else is not doing his or her job. The views of mil­i­tary leaders are impor­tant and cru­cial in reaching deci­sions, but it is the pres­i­dent who is Commander-​​in-​​Chief. If Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy had fol­lowed the advice of his mil­i­tary com­man­ders during the Cuban Mis­sile Crisis to attack Soviet mis­sile sites, or to invade Cuba, we would very prob­ably have gone to World War III.