As published for The Wall Street Journal on October 1, 2009:
George Bush succeeded in Iraq by talking to his generals regularly.
So our top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he has spoken with President Barack Obama only once since June.
This is a troubling revelation. Right now, our commander in chief is preparing to make one of the most important decisions of his presidency—whether to commit additional troops to win the war in Afghanistan. Being detached or incurious about what our commanders are experiencing makes it hard to craft a winning strategy.
Mr. Obama’s predecessor faced a similar situation: a war that was grinding on, pressure to withdraw troops, and conflicting advice—including from some who saw the war as unwinnable. But George W. Bush talked to generals on the ground every week or two, which gave him a window into what was happening and insights into how his commanders thought. That helped him judge their recommendations on strategy.
Mr. Obama’s hands-off approach to the war seems to fit his governing style. Over the past year, he outsourced writing the stimulus package to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey, washed his hands of Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to reinvestigate CIA interrogators, and hasn’t offered a detailed health-care plan.
Mr. Obama’s aloofness on the war will be a problem if the recent airing of Joe Biden’s views on Afghanistan is a tipoff that Mr. Obama will rely on his vice president’s guidance. According to reports in the New York Times and other publications, Mr. Biden supports reducing troop levels in favor of surgical attacks—mostly launched from offshore—and missile strikes against al Qaeda, especially in Pakistan.