The Washington Post is reporting on its front page this morning that President Obama has called for a "province-by-province analysis" of Afghanistan, assessing which areas are in need of additional help from the U.S. and which have local governments that are in sufficient control on their own.
Such requests do not reflect presidential whim. In a series of meetings, the President or someone else asked a set of questions and got either inadequate or conflicting answers about the facts on the ground. The military people, of course, have one set of blinders and the Foggy Bottom folk have another set, so sometimes it is not only the fog of war that makes decision-making difficult, it is the fog that comes from a failure to grasp the whole picture. This is not an indictment of the Pentagon or the State Department. The President, and he alone, is charged with analyzing the whole picture and making the final policy decisions. That is why he is the commander-in-chief.
In some presidencies, the commander-in-chief is content to let his generals make the decisions. Certainly, George W. Bush was happy to let Gen. David Petraeus become the public face of that war, even if it left the President in the somewhat emasculated role of saying, "I will do whatever Petreaus wants." Conversely, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur overstepped his role and displayed consistent insubordination to his commander-in-chief, Harry S. Truman took the politically tough but constitutionally necessary action of firing MacArthur. It is one mark of why that generation is known as the greatest generation is that after some ticker-tape on the fired general’s behalf, the American people embraced Truman’s decision because they understood the constitutional principles involved and had just fought a great and terrible war defending those principles. I wonder what Fox News would say if President Obama had to fire one of his generals, or if the American people would understand the danger of Caesarism the way our parents’ generation did in Truman’s time.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I am thrilled to have a President who is insistent on getting all the information he thinks is necessary to make a good decision. I like having a President who is more concerned about making the right decision than answering his rightwing critics who accuse him of dithering. There is no guarantee in this life that our decisions will meet with success. At the end of the day, the view from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue towards the mountains of Afghanistan is still a very distant view. But, thank God we have a President who is careful.
There was another item about Afghanistan in this morning's paper, a small notice on page A$, and it may, in its own different way, attest to another aspect of the President’s decision making. Last night, he flew by helicopter to Dover Air Force base where he stood with military families as they received the remains of eighteen soldiers who died in recent attacks in Afghanistan. He returned to the White House at 4 a.m. I do not know what possessed President Obama to make this trip. I do not know what effect it had on him. But, I do know that sometimes we turn to abstractions to insulate ourselves from the consequences of our decision-making, and that there is always a bit, sometimes a lot, of de-humanizing when we do that. Certainly we as Catholic Christians, who confess the Lord’s Incarnation, are especially called to avoid such abstractions: The Virgin Mary did not give birth to a summa nor to a checklist, she gave birth to a person, a real, living, breathing person. There is nothing abstract about Jesus of Nazareth.
There is also nothing abstract about the war dead whose remains come back in flag-draped coffins to Dover. Nor is there anything abstract about the civilian war dead who are killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are real human lives, leaving behind real human relationships, brothers and sisters and parents and children. The President calls upon the men and women of our armed services to put their lives on the line, knowing that for some percentage of them, the ultimate sacrifice will be demanded. The Bush administration refused to allow the press to even photograph the return of soldiers killed in action. President Obama went out to be there himself. This, as much as any study, will hopefully guide his decision-making about what to do next in Afghanistan. He may call for more American to risk their lives, he may not, but at least he will have seen in the tear-drenched faces of the families the cost of the decision he is called upon to make.