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Presidential Decision Making

Presidential Decision Making

By David Warren - October 30, 2009

The extreme delay in getting decisions out of Washington that were urgent many months ago, on how to proceed in Afghanistan, was made sickly comic on Monday when President Barack Obama told a military audience that he would not "rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way."

Morale had been descending in Afghanistan, from what I could make out, among an under-manned allied force in serious need of reinforcement; casualties rising on uncovered flanks.

And then they hear this strange man in Washington, playing Hamlet with himself, dramatizing his own role in what should be a clear-headed and quick, unemotional decision-making process. After all, he announced his (vacuous) "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" to great fanfare last March. All he has to do now is give it substance.

The Bush administration was, for all its misjudgments in other areas, good at making clear, clean, practical decisions with troops in harm's way. Bush himself commanded overwhelming support in the military vote for his re-election in 2004. John McCain, who could also be taken as having some idea about military issues, largely kept that vote. If Obama thinks he can now win the trust of soldiers, by blathering to them about the solemnity of his own august personal angst, he is as much of a fool as he looks to them already.

Of course, it is the soldier's duty to follow orders, and not to second-guess them. In principle, he has no opinions on the competence of his commander-in-chief, and it makes no difference to action in the field. And American soldiers are, from everything I have learnt about them, and in communication with many over the past eight years, like our own Canadian soldiers: solid, "professional," undistractable guys who get the job done without posturing. They are also, right down to the lowest ranks, resourceful people, who will make the best of what they have; and the officer corps is likewise impressive.

Indeed, I should confess that, as a person with no taste for bureaucracy, I'm almost at a loss to explain how well the U.S. strategic, logistical, and field operations are conducted; how dedicated the men (and women) are, serving down the line. For these soldiers are dealing with bureaucratic constraints on a scale never before self-imposed in history.

For example, I was following after the fact one operation in Afghanistan, a couple of years ago, in which everything in and above the field had been broadcast in live time, back into an office in Florida full of military lawyers. Old veterans of former wars must try to imagine this: your life on the line with bullets flying, while waiting for legal advice from some air-conditioned suit on another continent. (Contemporary technology makes this possible: but is a mixed blessing for that very reason.)

Life and death are real. President Obama must surely know that, and I must not doubt he has sometimes paused to consider the meanings of the words he uses. That he has no military experience whatever, and was entirely formed in "left-liberal" environments where military people are held in contempt, need also not go without not saying. He was under more pressure than a Bush or a McCain would ever be, to prove he could act as commander-in-chief.

But that requires making hard, and prompt, decisions. Bush was good at it, because Bush really did understand his responsibilities. A long procession of military families, including many widows and orphans, passed through the White House during his terms. The overwhelming impression from them was of a president who was not just words and gestures.

It is because military families are so well acquainted with the realities of life and violent death, that you can't speak glibly to them. They don't appreciate crocodile tears. They have a much better than average appreciation of rhetoric, however -- of what rings false and what rings true. I truly think Obama is out of his depth with them, as any man must be who does not know what he is talking about to a room full of people who do know.

He left Congress to stitch together its own trillion-dollar package of bailouts and give-always. He has let cumbersome and consequential medicare legislation write itself, as the vested interests lobby, tussle and conspire on Capitol Hill. He has watched the U.S. money supply pile up in very frail banks, and the dollar slide toward potential hyper-inflation. He has left all executive details to a group of fairly radical backstage "policy czars" -- many of whom seem utterly unqualified for their stations.

I can, in fact, find nothing, in his record so far, resembling a presidential decision, or specific presidential direction; only purple prose, almost never to the point. It is surely evident by now, this is a president who cannot make decisions. It grieves me that the soldiers must pay for that.

otiosus@sympatico.ca
© Ottawa Citizen
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