Confronted with a choice between the recommendations of two advocates, one smart and one seemingly less smart, on what basis does one choose that of the less smart one? Without firsthand knowledge of the situation under discussion, it would be almost impossible. The only thing one can do is try to bear in mind that sheer smartness is no guarantee of correctness, and that the smartest person in the room may be wrong. It sounds simple, but it’s not.
These words appeared in a short article in the June 1975 issue of Harper’s. The author was Richard Holbrooke.
Yesterday President Obama met for three hours with his national security team to begin discussion of the McChrystal proposal for Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke is a prominent participant. So is David Axelrod, sending an unfortunate message that Obama views this as a political decision as much as a national security matter. Initial reports suggest that Obama’s advisors are split, with some siding with McChrystal and others expressing strong reservations about a second major ramp-up of the military effort in Afghanistan.
One hopes that Obama and his brain trust are focusing on some serious questions, the answers to which are not obvious. One is why the United States and its NATO allies should be augmenting their effort in Afghanistan, in view of increasingly clear evidence of widespread electoral fraud in the nation’s presidential election. As Laura Rozen noted and Ken Silverstein highlighted, a key United Nations observer has been booted apparently for speaking too strongly about the election rigging–a fact which serves only to make clear how important the point is and how much political figures wish not to be reminded of it. If the Americans and their NATO allies are putting lives at risk to bring democracy to Afghanistan, doesn’t it matter that the government we installed seems to be working to subvert the elections process?
General McChrystal’s plan, recently described by Steve Coll as the “ink spot” approach, has widely been understood in tactical terms as an anti-Taliban plan. But of course the president and his advisors have to assess this proposal in broader strategic terms. What does McChrystal believe he can accomplish and over what period of time? And what would these military accomplishments mean for the political realities in Afghanistan? Will Obama and his team be the prisoners of their own messaging? Will they be the prisoners of presidential decisions past? Will they succumb to the weakness that Holbrooke ascribed to the Kennedy era, namely picking the proposal that looks the smartest?
Holbrooke’s implicit message is evidently this: what is called for is not going with the smartest man in the room. It’s picking the options that best suit the long-term needs of the nation. What is at stake in this decision is more than merely prestige for generals and politicians. It is the future of a people who have suffered ever since their country was the setting for a great Cold War proxy conflict. And it is the future of our vaunted Atlantic Alliance, whose purpose is now being tested and transformed in Afghanistan. The answers are not obvious, and a rush to simplistic judgment needs to be avoided. It may take decades before we know which voice in the room is the wisest, and for now Obama is well advised to approach this decision, which may define his presidency, with care and caution.