A Lawyer in the White House and the Surge in Afghanistan: Why They Are Linked

I want to take some time to comment on Sunday’s New York Times story that purports to describe the process by which Obama came to his recently-announced decision to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan with the addition of 30,000  troops.

In announcing his troop “surge”, Obama linked it with a 2011 deadline to begin drawing down the U.S. military presence. This latter pledge, as I noted when live blogging the speech, is  essentially a sop to the Left of the Democratic Party that opposes any escalation of U.S. combat forces, and is substantively almost meaningless, as the comments from Obama’s advisers the next day made quite clear. What we have, then, is Obama reprising the Bush tactic in Iraq – embracing a potentially open-ended military commitment, combined with a change in tactics, to buy time for the Afghani government to stand on its own. And, as we have seen in Iraq, even if the “surge” works in the short term, it is no guarantee that a stable, functioning government will follow – indeed, I think the likelihood of this happening in Afghanistan is less than the probability of establishing a stable government in Iraq.

Following the lead of NY Times story, however, I’m less interested in assessing whether Obama made the “right” decision than in understanding why he made the choice to reprise the Bush strategy.  I want to suggest that the NY Times article underplays or ignores key elements of the decision process that, in my view, made Obama’s decision both very predictable and points to weaknesses in the way he organizes his advising process.  Be forewarned: what follows is more speculative than most of my posts. In my defense, this story addresses an ongoing research interest of mine; I’ve written extensively on presidential decision making, and devote a full chapter in my latest book manuscript to this issue.  I’m also working with my colleague Professor Amy Yuen on this topic (she’s not to be blamed, however, for anything I write here!)  So this gives me an opportunity to try some of my ideas out on you. I expect some pushback here.

To begin, note that whenever the White House allows reporters an “exclusive” look at how the President made a crucial decision, an implicit bargain is struck: in return for an exclusive story there is an expectation that the coverage is more likely to be favorable than not.  Of course, neither side can or will admit to this beforehand and both will deny it after the story comes out.

It is not surprising, then, that the picture painted in the NY Times story is of a model decision-making process, one in which the President patiently and exhaustively listened to all his advisers, weighed the pros and cons of every option, and came finally to advocate a position – a surge coupled with an exit strategy – that in many ways addressed multiple concerns and superficially split the differences among his advisers. In the end, Obama kept his own counsel and, ultimately, acted as “decider-in-chief.”  I want to suggest, however, that most of what is depicted in the story is, essentially, window dressing (not to put too fine a point on it.)  In fact, as my students heard me say repeatedly in the weeks leading up to Obama’s speech, there was never any real possibility that he was going to reverse course in Afghanistan and begin a withdrawal.  Indeed, dating back to the day he took office, I wrote repeatedly that he would largely embrace the major tenets of Bush’s War on Terror.  And, in area after area, from the use of military commission to the maintenance of the state secrets doctrine to the adoption of the Bush surge tactic he has done essentially that.

In part this is because Obama lacks the political capital to be a truly “transformative” president; his presidential campaign, with its emphasis on somewhat nebulous “change” allowed his supporters to read into it their most fervent hopes but it never provided any real roadmap, nor political clout, for reversing the major elements of the War on Terror. And, for political and institutional reasons, the Democratic Congress has no great incentive to follow his lead in most policy areas – his margin of victory was about average and he had little in the way of “coattails”. (Nor, as I have written elsewhere, was there much possibility that he would substitute a more bipartisan governing approach for the polarization that characterized presidential-congressional relations during the previous eight years.)

But there is an additional reason why I told my students several weeks ago that Obama would accept the recommendations of his military advisers to escalate the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan:  Obama is a Harvard-trained lawyer. Let me elaborate.

In addition to learning the substance of the law, lawyers do two things well: they understand process, and they know how to marshal evidence on behalf of an objective.  Typically lawyers are brought in to make a case – to provide legal justification for arriving at a predetermined conclusion.  That means making sure the relevant facts are gathered and considered in a logical manner.  Rarely are lawyers asked to question the conclusion itself, except as that questioning provides further evidence to support the conclusion.  It’s the lawyer’s job to serve the client – not to change the client’s mind.  Witnesses are cross-examined in order to strengthen their stories in support of the conclusion, or – if they oppose the conclusion – to expose flaws in their testimony.  The goal here is to make reasonable people reach the conclusion that the lawyer has been tasked with defending.

Now consider the NY Times story.  Almost from the first line it tells the tale of a President who early on accepts what the conclusion must be and thereafter is concerned with making the best possible case for reaching that conclusion. Almost overlooked, however, is a thorough discussion regarding why Obama reaches that conclusion in the first place.  Instead, the story focuses on the decision making process that flows from this conclusion; it was, one participant said, “a virtual seminar” led by a president who performed as something “between a college professor and a gentle-cross examiner.”  Cross-examiner?  College professor?   To what purpose?  Remarkably, the Times report largely skirts this issue.  All we learn is that Obama began the process skeptical of the request for more troops, but in the end is convinced to support it for fear of “the consequences of failure.”  It is a decision that in the end appears predicated on not wanting to appear to lose Afghanistan rather than focusing on what it would take to win there.

Note how the Times story begins: Obama is haunted, the author says, by the projected cost in lives, and money, of the military options presented to him.  So how does he react? He decides to quicken the pace of military engagement!  Essentially, he takes his options as given, and pushes for alterations that will allow him the best possibility of serving multiple objectives: not losing militarily, and not appearing to get bogged down in an open-ended commitment.  It is a classic split-the-difference approach that hides the failure to choose in the guise of a thorough, orderly decision process.

Here is the key passage in the story: on September 29, Obama “firmly closed the door on any withdrawal. ‘I just want to say right now, I want to take off the table that we’re leaving Afghanistan.’”  At that point, more than a month before he announced his decision, real debate was essentially over.  All that remained was to decide which of the military options McChrystal proposed – 15,000, 40,000 or 80,000 more troops – Obama would embrace.  And McChrystal, through selective leaks, played his role beautifully, engaging in the classic bureaucratic maneuver – give the president three options, realizing full well that he will choose the middle one.  And Obama dutifully walked right down the garden path, aided by a decision process supervised by the NSC staff that produced, on Oct. 22, a “consensus” memo, “much of which originated out of the defense secretary’s [Bush holdover Robert Gates] office.”  Ultimately, it was Gates who drew up the final plan, including the level of troops that would “bridge the differences” between Obama’s advisers.

Reading between the lines of the NY Times story, then, we see a decision process in which the president’s early decision to remain in Afghanistan for fear of “failure” essentially closed off genuine debate about altering Afghanistan’s place in the War on Terror.  Thereafter, his options were largely dictated by one person – Gates – and shaped to achieve the widest possible consensus within the administration.  It was a pragmatic, lawyer-like decision process that in the end led to a continuation of the basic outlines of the War on Terror which Obama inherited from Bush, rather than exposing the president to a real debate on the substance of that War, as it pertained to Afghanistan, that may have produced genuine change.

Let me be clear here: Obama did what many presidents who had a similar lack of foreign policy experience have done before, whether it was JFK acquiescing to the Bay of Pigs invasion in1961 or LBJ deciding in the summer of 1965 to escalate the U.S. presence in Vietnam. In both cases presidents failed to seriously question the underlying assumptions behind the options presented them, and instead proceeded to debate the options themselves.  Both worried more about the consequences of failing to do what their military advisers said was necessary than in debating whether the proffered options would produce success.

How can presidents prevent succumbing to a process that too often makes them choose between options that present no real alternatives?  One way is if the President has first-hand experience with the issue under debate.  This was the case with Eisenhower in 1954, when the French, supported by some in the American military, pressed for the U.S. to intervene in Dien Bien Phu, the besieged French stronghold in Vietnam.  Eisenhower understood through personal experience the risks of fighting a land war in Asia, and he rigged the subsequent “debate” to make sure that he could defend not committing U.S. troops on behalf of the French.

Most presidents, however, are like Obama; they lack the relevant foreign policy experience to independently arrive at a policy choice for most of the issues they confront.  In this case they must use their advising process in a way that engages in real debate by exposing the assumptions underlying the various options they are given.  Unfortunately, lawyers by training (and often by temperament) are usually better versed at making the best possible case for a given option, rather than forcing debate on whether that option is even advisable.  Obama was in a difficult position – he inherited a war in Afghanistan he perhaps never truly believed in, but his advising process evidently never gave him an option for withdrawing that he felt was politically tenable.  What he needed was debate on where Afghanistan stood in the overall war on Terror – not debate on how to prevent a Taliban takeover in that country.  But he was hemmed in by a decision process that was instigated by the CIA and military reports of impending “mission failure” in Afghanistan.  That initial question – what can we do to save Afghanistan – drove subsequent debate. Early on, he made the decision that he couldn’t afford the perception that he had “failed” by losing Afghanistan.  Obama, like any good lawyer, took that conclusion and came up with the best possible response – one that prevented that loss at least in the short term and did so without splitting his administration. It was the consensus decision – but a consensus borne from Obama’s initial conclusion that he could not risk “failing” in Afghanistan.

How might he have approached this decision differently?  In a subsequent post I’ll discuss some of the research Professor Yuen and I have done, as well as related research, that suggests how Obama might have more effectively framed debate and utilized his advisers in the months leading to his decision to reprise the surge.  Let me be clear here: I am not arguing that the choice to remain in Afghanistan is wrong. Instead, my claim is that the process – as describe in the Times –  that Obama used to arrive at his decision did not adequately expose him to debate regarding the assumptions underlying whether success or failure in Afghanistan matters.  It was a process that fit well with Obama’s temperament and legal training – one that thoroughly vetted a given option – how not to fail in Afghanistan – and that arrived at a consensus for implementing that option.  But it did not do enough to allow him to truly question the premises underlying that option: that victory is obtainable, and at a cost we are willing to pay.


  1. I think you are being far to subjective here. “Obama, like any good lawyer, took that conclusion…and the assumption that he is primarily considering how not to fail”

    And then listening primarily to those arguments that supported. I think we give not enough credit to Obama, his staff or advisors that other options were not given including questioning the premise that victory is obtainable “at a cost we are willing to pay'”.

    This is the first president in my memory that truly has critical thinking skills, both trained and natural. From what I have heard from friends in Washington, this man will listen to just about anyone and we know that he has done just that. The Times article concerned itself mainly with his “round table” of advisors. But he has also had huge input from everything from world leaders to authors to friends and probably countless behind the scenes one on one discussions from every possible point of view. Not to mention a wife with considerable analytical skills of her own.

    The assumption that he or they did not allow enough room to debate whether success or failure really matters and that victory is obtainable, and at a cost we are willing to pay is, in my judgement, a stretch. Certainly not sustainable by using just the Times article.

    Personally I would have preferred to say, “not worth it”, pull the troops out and concentrate on security at home. But if you put me in Obama’s position, as not just the lawyer but the judge and the jury and had me listen to arguments on whether in the long run “success or failure really matters”, as well as all the other arguments, I would still have had to make a similar decision.

    I look forward to your and Amy Yuen’s expansion on presidential decision making.

  2. Dick,

    You raise excellent objections to my post and I think many readers will agree with you. In the absence of more evidence, it’s hard to tell what options were really debated. And while I stand by my argument, as I noted at the outset, there’s a lot of room for debate on this. I think you’ve gotten it off to a good start… .

  3. Matt,

    many this for this. I think that you’re pretty much right on the money here, and it adds to my general depression when it comes to the future of the US involvement in Afghanistan. I linked to your piece over at the Middle East Studies page, where students and I are collectively writing about the Middle East (http://sites.middlebury.edu/mesmidd/2009/12/05/why-we-elected-him/).

    I would be a lot more optimistic if I felt that Obama had actually put forward a clear plan for what we’re going to be doing in Afghanistan and why, but as it is, your comments help explain why he came to this decision in this way at this moment.

    thanks again,


  4. Justin,

    The Times hosted a Q&A session today with the authors of the article on the decision process leading up to the surge, and in it they confirmed that the final plan was largely drawn up by Sec. of Defense Gates – further evidence in my view that this process, in terms of the options up for debate, was driven by Gates, not Obama. See:


    (Note that you have to wade through several dozen comments to extract the authors’ assessments regarding who was driving the process.)

  5. Joe Klein, in Time, makes an argument similar to yours. “The President made the best possible argument for a rather iffy proposition.” He takes the lawyer’s tactic.

    (Interestingly, Klein ultimately accepts the proposition, but doesn’t think Obama sells it well enough. see http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1945232,00.html).

    I’m not sure, however, that Obama’s law training is the dominant reason for the approach he took. You mention his lack of political capital. This seems sufficient to suggest that Obama’s chief concern will be appearing not to fail, whether he was a lawyer or not. Lacking the political clout, it seems Obama could not have arrived at a different position, even if his advising process brought out more options. You write “Early on, he made the decision that he couldn’t afford the perception that he had “failed” by losing Afghanistan. Obama, like any good lawyer, took that conclusion and came up with the best possible response.” Lawyer training may shape his response, but does it shape his initial conclusion? Or is that simply the effect of being a politician?

    That decision being made at the outset, the debate would have proceeded as it did, Obama pressing his advisers for defenses of their position rather than challenging assumptions.

    I’m not sure the decisionmaking process he employs with his advisers dictates that he will neglect the underlying assumptions of his position. Indeed, the decision process seems to follow from the decision to remain in Afghanistan, a position already arrived at. On his own, he neglects questioning assumptions. His interests, then, are served precisely by a process that allows him to make the best possible case for a tenuous proposition, because early on, as you note, he chooses a surge as his policy.

    It seems that your concern is Obama’s crafting of a political policy, rather than one that addresses fundamental questions about the importance of Afghanistan. Gates and Mchrystal are not interested in crafting a political policy and would not lead Obama explicitly in that direction. The problem is not in the advising process but in Obama’s initial decisions, which seem to be made a priori.

  6. Jesse,

    You make an excellent point – that the problem, if one accepts my analysis, is with Obama’s initial decision to limit his policy options in order not to “lose” Afghanistan, and thereafter his lawyer’s response may in fact have helped craft a reasonable course of action. My point, however, is that because Obama is trained as a lawyer, he did not dig deep enough to test the assumptions underlying that initial conclusion – nor did he structure his advising process in a way that would generate alternative to the working supposition that he couldn’t afford to be perceived as having “lost Afghanistan.” It may be that he lacked the political clout or experience to take on his generals – I suspect this is true. But I see no evidence that he even truly pushed for an alternative plan of action with which to take them on. And I blame his lawyer’s training in part for that.

  7. Matt,

    What do you make of Biden’s role in the process? Both as a continuation of the Gore-Cheney enlargement of the office and as a dissenter in the ranks who, according to the Times, did ask the very questions that Obama brushed aside?


  8. Will,

    sorry for the delay in responding – bluebooks called! Again, keeping in mind that we can’t be sure what advice Obama actually received, my read is that Biden played an assigned role – devil’s advocate – but that in fact he did not differ dramatically from those who supported an increase in U.S. troops. As evidence, see:


    Again, this is more speculative than I’d like, but until the archives are opened, it is the best I can do.

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