Q&A: The President on Afghanistan: Indecisive or Wise?
Schmitt

Political science professor David Schmitt considers Obama's handling of Afghanistan. Photo by Lauren McFalls

October 30, 2009

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.

For more information, please contact Susan Salk at 617-373-5446 or at s.salk@neu.edu.

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