The news that Obama has refused to sign off on any of the four major options presented to him in Afghanistan reminds me of why he was elected president. This critical decision - arguably the most critical of his young presidency - is one that will not be rushed the way such decisions often are. His insistence that the civilian branch truly control policy there and that empire not be passively accepted as a fait accompli are real signs of strength in the struggle to recalibrate American foreign policy. Can you imagine Bush ever holding out like this on the military? Or for these reasons:
Administration officials said Wednesday that Obama wants to make it clear that the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended.
The stunning honesty of Eikenberry has undoubtedly concentrated minds on the core pillar of any counter-insurgency strategy: the Karzai government. But, of course, no options have been closed off yet:
The White House says Obama has not made a final choice, though military and other officials have said he appears near to approving a slightly smaller increase than McChrystal wants at the outset.
Among the options for Obama would be ways to phase in additional troops, perhaps eventually equaling McChrystal's full request, based on security or other conditions in Afghanistan and in response to pending decisions on troops levels by some U.S. allies fighting in Afghanistan.
What we are seeing here, I suspect, is what we see everywhere with Obama: a relentless empiricism in pursuit of a particular objective and a willingness to let the process take its time. The very process itself can reveal - not just to Obama, but to everyone - what exactly the precise options are. Instead of engaging in adolescent tests of whether a president is "tough" or "weak", we actually have an adult prepared to allow the various choices in front of us be fully explored. He is, moreover, not taking the decision process outside the public arena. He is allowing it to unfold within the public arena. Others, moreover, are allowed to take the lead: McChrystal, or Netanyahu, or Pelosi, in the case of Af-Pak, Israel-Palestine and health insurance, respectively. Obama encourages the process but hangs back, broadly - and persistently - pursuing certain objectives without tipping his hand on specifics or timing.
So the troop question is rather like the public option question.
Obama's position - almost a year into his presidency - is yet to be revealed. The president waits, prods, allows the parties to reveal their hands, and keeps his final detailed position to himself. By allowing the debate to continue in public, he also tries to get the public more, rather than less, involved. So we too get to show our hand as the debate continues. And the polls show Americans pretty evenly - and understandably - divided on the excruciating and ultimately prudential question of what to do next.
What strikes me about this is the enormous self-confidence this reveals. Here is a young president, prepared to allow himself to be portrayed as "weak" or "dithering" in the slow and meticulous arrival at public policy. He is trusting the reality to help expose what we need to do. He is allowing the debate - however messy and confusing and emotional - to take its time and reveal the real choices in front of us. This is politically risky, of course. Those who treat politics as a contact-sport, whose insistence is on the "game" of who wins which news cycle, or who can spin each moment in a political storm as a harbinger of whatever, will pounce and shriek and try to bounce the president into a decision. And those who believe that what matters in war is charging ahead regardless at all times will also grandstand against the president's insistence on prudence.
But he won't be bounced and his concern seems to be genuinely to do the right and the most sustainable thing. Which is a kind of strength we haven't seen in a president since Reagan.