To 'B' or Not? David Brooks & Obama's Problem


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I commend two excellent pieces for your weekend study.  First, “Unfortunately, Failure is an Option” by security experts, Lawrence B. Lindsey and Reuel Marc Gerecht:  http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/017/114ctowg.asp


I’m thinking of those Coors' Lite beer commercials where we are treated to a series of comic, “too little, too much” scenarios. 


It turns out that modern presidential decision making is structured the same way by the teams of advisors surrounding POTUS.  In military situations, Option A is the “All in and win” one, and Option B is the “Get out now” one.  The tendency is to pick Option B, “Do less and hope for the best”. 


As the authors trenchantly point out, Option B almost always ends in failure. 


“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.”



And then look at David Brooks Op Ed in today’s New York Times, “The Tenacity Question”: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/30/opinion/30brooks.html?_r=1


David Brooks decided to do what a good journalist is supposed to do: talk to the people who should know.  He interviewed a number of military experts whom he respects about Mr. Obama’s critical decision making in those looming war and peace decisions.  Here’s the pull quote:


“They have no idea if he is willing to stick by his decisions, explain the war to the American people and persevere through good times and bad.


“Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.


‘But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree.”


And here’s the real game, in my opinion. 


We face the chilling possibility that atomic bombs will soon be in the hands of Islamic fanatics in charge of regimes with access to the resources necessary to deliver them on major population centers. 


  • Pakistan has nukes and the regime is being destabilized by a resurgent Taliban in-country and next door in Afghanistan. 


  • Iran’s lunatic regime is playing us diplomatically while rashly rushing get to the game changer – a deliverable nuke.


The presents a clear convergence of national self interest and public morality:  The looming specter of another deadly nuclear arms race with the concomitant inevitable outcome (someone’s city will become a glass parking lot) must be averted.  Mere deterrence will not work under the new conditions.  [Even that blowhard Soviet Premier, N. Khrushchev, was more deterrable than the current cohort of martyr-minded jihadists.]


So the uber-challenge, the one that dwarfs all the others, is bright-line clear: We gotta’ stop this A-bomb trend before it’s too late. 


Americans were recently treated by an infamous Newsweek cover, “Living with a Nuclear Iran”.  Really?  Try substituting “Iran, Korean and Taliban” to that headline, and adding “Living and dying”.   The result is unacceptable.


But to merely say that something is “unacceptable” is a far cry from doing something effective to stop it from happening.


When actual, on-the-ground- policy choices are concerned, nothing is ever absolutely clear. Murphy's Law dogs the analysis as well as the performance.  


Grand Moral undertakings by nation states are strictly limited by self-interest, enlightened or otherwise, and by real world prudential constraints.  


But the long game here is clear enough:  We have a shrinking time window to wall off the threat of lunatic-shared a-bomb capabilities.  At the end of the day, we may or may not “build democratic allies”, but we most certainly will pay a bitter price for allowing deliverable nuclear bombs to fall into the control of loosely-wrapped martyrs.  If, God forbid, the USA is ever hit with a single nuclear weapon in a densely populated area, chances are that you will lose at least one friend, one relative, one colleague. A piece of your conscience will die as well when you reflect on what you might have done in 2009 and 2010 to support the strong measures that might have worked to avert it.


This is why we cannot afford to lose sight of the ultimate prize: A stable Pakistan with the nuclear codes safely under rational control and no new nuclear players anywhere else in the Middle east region.  


And that means Iran.


For the immediate decision makers, the ultimate stakes are so high that they are psychologically invisible, kind of like the Titanic passengers who kept waiting for a more comfortable boat.  They are disposed to kick the can down the road.  Again. 


The bottom line here is will.  Can any of us say with assurance that our new president has the grit, determination and will to protect the national interest at this crucial moment?  If WE have some doubts, you can be assured that our enemies smell weakness. 


All military catastrophes begin with a miscalculation.  This is why, when the stakes are as high as they really are, nuance is dangerous.  You can’t draw a line in the sand without being deadly serious about what will happen next.  


At the end of the day, Churchill and Roosevelt were not “Option B” guys.  They were actual leaders. 


A heads-up to our new president:  It is the end of the day.






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