Agreeing on Afghanistan

Why the Obama Administration Chose Consensus This Time

Courtesy Reuters

President Obama is putting the finishing touches on his strategic review of the Afghanistan war, the third of his presidency. The focus is the pace of U.S. force withdrawals rather than a top-to-bottom reassessment of war strategy. The results will be announced Wednesday evening. But as important as those results will be, perhaps more important is the process of getting there.

U.S. presidents running national security strategy reviews have two basic models to choose from: the adversarial model and the consensus model. Whereas the Obama administration's earlier policy reviews were conducted through an adversarial model, the past few weeks have seen a process more focused on consensus -- which is a fitting approach for this stage of his presidency.

Under the adversarial model, the president's principals -- the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser, and others -- develop specific policy options. The most famous example was President Dwight Eisenhower's Project Solarium. In May 1953, Eisenhower assembled teams of advisers to develop three options for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. The teams then spent a full day before Eisenhower to make their case. He chose a policy focused on containing Soviet expansion -- rejecting a more aggressive policy of rolling it back -- which set the direction of U.S. foreign policy for nearly four decades.

Under the consensus-based model, one of the president's most trusted advisers works to bring the U.S. government around to a policy that the president supports. The most famous example is the review that the George W. Bush administration undertook of its Iraq policy in 2006. Over the course of many months, the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, led an informal process to build a new strategy that all the relevant stakeholders, including Iraq's prime minister, could endorse. The result was the surge. Its principal feature was a new military mission and additional U.S. military forces. But other features -- including a civilian surge and commitments from the

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