The Magazine

Unfortunately, Failure Is an Option

Barack Obama faces a choice in Afghanistan. The safe middle ground may be the most treacherous.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY and REUEL MARC GERECHT
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One of the standard accoutrements of the decision making process in the West Wing is the three-option "decision memorandum." The memo itself is drafted by the national security adviser, the National Economic Council director, or the assistant to the president for domestic policy, depending on the issue. It then goes through "clearance" to make sure it is acceptable to each of the president's key advisers. Typically, these advisers cluster around a consensus approach, but there are outliers; some favor doing a bit more than the consensus, some a bit less. Hence, three options: Option A is the "go all out" plan or "do too much" approach; Option C is the "don't do it" or "do too little" approach; while Option B is the safe consensus that the bulk of the staff prefers, and the one the president usually picks.

Given the leaks coming out of the White House on Afghanistan, decision making in the Obama administration appears little different from that under other presidents. Aides even talk on the record about "doing the middle option," and sympathetic outsiders like Richard Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, write opinion pieces extolling the virtues of some moderate approach. "Afghanistan is important, but not that important" is a reasonable paraphrase of Haas's argument.

Picking the proverbial Option B is a standard result of most models of organizational behavior, and the White House is no exception. But by its very nature Option B defines a problem as being too serious to ignore and thereby requiring resources, yet commits fewer resources than would guarantee success. This increases the odds of failure and of having to revisit the issue at a later date. In the case now before us, President Obama has already rejected Option C, the view that Afghanistan is "the graveyard of empires" and therefore an imprudent place in which to invest American lives. But by hesitating to embrace General Stanley McChrystal's plan for an additional 40,000 troops--Option A--he is implicitly selecting an option that will likely prove more costly in the long run in both lives and treasure.

After Osama bin Laden's attack on the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, President Clinton was presented three options for how to respond. Option A, a full-scale military assault on al Qaeda and the Taliban, was not seriously considered. The administration was not bellicose. The CIA and the State Department didn't want to believe that bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had become religiously and ideologically inseparable. Diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was still the preferred means of neutralizing al Qaeda. Option C, ignoring the attack as President Clinton had ignored the Iranian-backed bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, was also dismissed. Choosing Option B, Clinton unleashed cruise missiles against rock-hut training camps in Khost and bombed a suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction facility in Sudan linked to both al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The adverse reaction to the bombings in Europe and the United States inclined President Clinton to choose, and later George W. Bush to stick with, Option C after al Qaeda nearly sank the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000.

Most ironically, the current administration's decision making strategy carries an eerie resemblance to that which led Bush to Option B in Iraq in the early years of the U.S. intervention. Until the surge of 2007, President Bush opted for moderation in the war. Before hostilities commenced, Options A, B, and C contended for his attention. The maximalists wanted a replay of the Powell Doctrine: Option A was no war unless we had more troops from Europe and Asia deployed to the Middle East, with allies, especially the Turks, given their strategic position for resupply, all lined up. The minimalists' Option C would have kept some pressure on Saddam by maintaining 140,000 troops in the region, but would have avoided an invasion and let the United Nations continue its seemingly endless round of inspections while the clock ticked.