President Obama came into office promising he wouldn’t be captive to groupthink. He would test the assumptions of his advisers by seeking outside voices. As if to prove he meant it, he has already spoken to his predecessor at least once. He may want to do so again as he puzzles through what to do in Afghanistan.
The call wouldn’t be for strategic advice—Obama has kept much of the Bush military team in place, and he can hear from them directly. But there’s only one other person on the planet who has an understanding of what Obama is going through—the conflicting military advice, the squabbling advisers, the condolence letters to the families. Obama’s liberal allies are still cataloging Bush’s strategic failures including the neglect in Afghanistan that has made the situation so bad there. They’d cringe at the idea of the president’s choice of counsel. But Obama is smart enough to know that you can learn from the mistakes of your predecessors. (That’s why he talks to the Clintons about health care reform.)
It was during the inauguration that Obama told Bush that he hoped he’d be able to call on him from time to time. According to a former Bush aide, Bush told Obama he’d be happy to help in any way that he could but that the new president would have so many people advising him it would be all he could do to keep up with the official voices. That certainly seemed true Wednesday, when Obama convened a meeting to discuss Afghanistan. About 20 people were in the room. The meeting lasted for three hours. According to aides, it never touched on whether to send more troops. The next big meeting is next week.
Obama’s insistence on slow deliberations on Afghanistan contrasts with the policy tempo on other fronts. Obama has been a president of action. Economic collapse? Here’s a government program to address it. Car companies failing? Here’s a program to help them. Want the Olympics to come to your town? Obama can help—tonight in Copenhagen he plays his role of chairman of the Chicago Chamber of Commerce as he pitches that city to the International Olympic Committee. Even while policy was being debated, the message always was: Action is coming.
On Afghanistan, however, we’re watching the president in an extended period of cogitation. Before yesterday’s meeting he’d talked to Stanley McChrystal, his top general in Afghanistan, only once. The questions about what to do next in Afghanistan are on the table, but Obama is not making the call. This has led to at least one odd role reversal in which a NATO secretary general has tried to stiffen the resolve of an American president. The White House calls this being careful and thorough. Republicans, including Karl Rove, call it wavering.
Early in Obama’s tenure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates talked about his new boss’s thought process relative to the man who preceded him. In a Meet the Press interview, he said: “I think that probably President Obama is somewhat more analytical. And he makes sure he hears from everybody in the room on an issue. And if they don’t speak up, he calls on them.”
Obama has been talking to people outside his circle. He has talked to Colin Powell. He also discussed the matter with John McCain, though not as much as McCain would have liked. McCain and fellow Sens. Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman had requested a meeting with Obama to talk about the situation. A person familiar with the president’s thinking says that, unsurprisingly, his biggest concern is the unreliable Afghan government and particularly its president, Hamid Karzai.
Aside from the policy question of what to do in Afghanistan, there is the political question of how the president goes about coming up with it. This is an issue that deserves lots of deliberation. Gut-level decision-making is what caused so much trouble for the last administration. Bush’s constant conversations with commanders on the ground, Obama’s aides say, interrupted the chain of command. At one point, President Bush turned a briefing into a public press show.
Obama, says an aide, thinks maintaining the chain of command has benefits. There are three others Obama talks to before McChrystal—Defense Secretary Gates, Gen. Petraeus, and Adm. Mullen (though Mullen, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, isn’t directly in the chain of command). One Pentagon source said Obama has maintained an “abnormal distance” from his commander in Afghanistan. Another called it simply a “difference in style” from Bush. Another stylistic difference is that Obama’s counselors in the Situation Room on Wednesday included his top political mind, David Axelrod. Karl Rove, who played a similar role for Bush, was not allowed in that setting (though he was deeply involved in the issue).
President Obama was elected in part because he promised he would be a commander who wouldn’t go rushing into deep and dangerous commitments. Officials at the Pentagon and White House counsel that even at Obama’s deliberative pace, he’ll still be moving faster than Bush did when he made his “surge” decision in 2006. Plus, the public is not screaming for more troops. In fact, if Obama does choose to send more troops, he can point back to all the thoughtful meetings that went into his decision.