Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Obama Decision Making Model

Obama has been criticized not only for what he has decided but also for the manner he arrived at his decision. In both cases the major critique is on the time element. His decision has been faulted for the deadline set for beginning the troop pullout. The manner he took the decision has, over the past three months of his deliberations, been equated to ‘dithering’. In the event, Obama attempted to dispel both criticism on stage in front the corps of cadets at Westpoint. While his decision has drawn considerable comment, this article suggests that the Obama model is a worthy case study in strategic decision making.

Countering his critics, Obama said, “As your Commander-in-Chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service. And that's why…I insisted on a thorough review of our strategy…There has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war during this review period. Instead, the review has allowed me to ask the hard questions, and to explore all the different options, along with my national security team, our military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan, and our key partners. And given the stakes involved, I owed the American people -- and our troops -- no less. This review is now complete.”

Contrast Obama’s deliberateness with the Global War on Terror unleashed and waged by his predecessor, George W Bush. First was the naming of the operation initially as ‘Infinite Justice’. It does not take the perspicacity of an Arundhati Roy to point out the intrinsic hubris. To its credit the US settled for ‘Enduring Freedom’. Second, the aims and objectives were speedily arrived at, dispelling any possibility of negotiated settlement. Thus the good offices of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were not utilised to force the Taliban to hand over the Al Qaeda leadership. The military course was virtually predetermined, as indeed had been the case with Iraq War I that Bush Sr. had fought. Third, the resulting hurry led to inadequate appreciation of the military consequences, provisioning of forces and requirements of stabilisation. Fourth, Iraq War II was unleashed with a casus belli that turned out to be false. The UK has an ongoing enquiry on the antecedents of the war; not so the US. The fallout has been in increasing credibility of the cynical view that the war was a neo-con conspiracy to take over oil resources at the expense of the American narrative. The lesson is that hurry stymies reflection on and the bureaucratic counter pressures that can serve a balancing function and help flesh out plans or provide alternatives.

Obama has demonstrated the other method of conducting deliberations on war. Churchill’s relations with his commanders through Alan Brooke and Roosevelt’s handling of Eisenhower and MacArthur through George C Marshall are now case studies at training institutions of politico-strategic level decision making. As with Bob Woodward’s ‘Bush at War’, a study of the interaction of the relatively inexperienced Obama with his formidable military team of Mullen-Petraeus-MacChrystal is bestseller material. This is irrespective of whether retrospect reveals the Obama’s exit strategy as successful or otherwise.

Firstly, Bush had used an address at West Point in June 2002 to declare the questionable policy of pre-emption. Obama has reverted the criteria to a strategic rationality along lines of desirability, affordability, feasibility and political, legal and moral sustainability. Secondly, the choice of locale and choreography of the event sensibly brought out Obama’s oratorical strengths and reinforced his stature as supreme commander. This was necessary after the contretemps around the leak of the MacChrystal report in which defence secretary Gates had to take an adverse view. The leak of the report was to force the president’s hand through headlines as ‘Is it Amateur Hour at White House?’ Third, the speech contained all the requirements for proceeding at the strategic level. It set out the aim for the commanders in theatre. It discoursed on the three prongs of strategy: training of the ANA; the civilian side; and the requirements of Pakistan. It set, if controversially, a deadline. It kept open the option of a negotiated end to the conflict. The rationale given potentially helps shore up the home front, the need for which was the major lesson of Vietnam. Fourth, Obama had over seven sittings with his advisers. It enabled him get a measure of the Chinese and Indian positions through his meetings with their leaders. The visits of Clinton and Mullen to Pakistan no doubt helped get their consequential viewpoint on board. The consultation helped bring balance to his decision. It makes it easier to sell to his European allies, evident from their promise of 5000 troops. It is now no longer only ‘Obama’s War’.

India’s performance in Operation Parakram, particularly lack of strategic direction at mobilization and during its extension, indicates that the Obama model has much to offer in the Cold Start scenario.

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