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 Iraqis -- were essential to building consensus within the administration.

Each model has its advantages and disadvantages. The adversarial model results in winners and losers, which makes it prone to leaks as the losers seek to re-litigate issues or vindicate their positions in the press. The leaks, in turn, can spook U.S. allies and bolster U.S. enemies, making the policy harder to execute. Like any good litigation, however, an adversarial process also sharpens thinking and crystallizes debates; most contingencies are put through the analytical ringer before a decision is made.

The consensus model, on the other hand, risks masking differences. That can lead to surprises when it comes to executing the policy. Reaching an agreement in the White House Situation Room might end the process of policy formulation, but it begins the far more difficult process of policy execution. It is wise to test every contingency and counterargument before the execution phase begins. Consensus-based reviews can, however, get all the key departments and agencies invested in the policy, which is also vital to sound execution in the field.

The Obama administration appears to prefer the adversarial model. Three options are typically presented to the president in the decision-making process; when determining the pace of withdrawal from Iraq, for example, Obama considered 16-month, 19-month, and 23-month options for the withdrawal of U.S. combat brigades. For Afghanistan, after an initial surge of two combat brigades, he considered sending no additional troops, 30,000 additional troops, or 50,000 additional troops. He chose the 30,000 option -- again, the middle of three.

In his speech announcing that decision, Obama promised that the United States would begin to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. That time is near, and reports suggest that the administration is once again divided into two camps: one favoring meager withdrawals and another favoring steep troop cuts over the next year. How should the president handle this?

In 2009, Obama favored an adversarial model, for good reason. In his earliest months in office, an interagency review of Afghanistan strategy recommended sending two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan to conduct "an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency campaign." The process appears to have masked disagreements within the administration until a new commander, General Stanley McChrystal, said he would need up to 50,000 more U.S. troops to carry out his assigned counterinsurgency.

Caught off guard by that request, the White House launched another top-to-bottom review of its Afghanistan policy. The result was the protracted and adversarial review that took place in the fall of 2009. Although that review process led to a sound strategy -- with resources matching objectives -- it greatly complicated its execution.

To begin with, it was riddled with leaks. Even before a decision was made, the internal debate was laid bare in the press, with McChrystal recommending a large troop surge and others (most notably Vice President Joe Biden) recommending a narrower and less troop-intensive strategy. That led to an unfortunate, and not necessarily accurate, media narrative of an administration divided between military and civilian camps. The leaks also embarrassed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, when cables surfaced from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul questioning his integrity. Questions about Karzai should be asked, but not in public by the ambassador charged with executing a strategy that -- like it or not -- needs Karzai as a participant.

Eighteen months into this new strategy for Afghanistan, with weakening congressional support, fickle allies, and fledgling partners, the administration could not afford a similarly protracted and public review. Nor did it need one. In the fall of 2009, Obama had less than one year under his belt, just as Eisenhower did when he ran the Solarium exercise. Nearly two years later, Obama should have a much clearer sense of what he wants to do, and he appears, accordingly, to have structured a far more disciplined consensus-based policy review process.

There is certainly debate within the administration. But much like President Bush in 2006, three years into the Iraq war, President Obama has years of experience in managing war policy. He can evaluate different arguments with greater knowledge than before. He can balance conflicting pressures -- military, economic, and political -- that merge uniquely in the Oval Office. And he can set in place a policy trajectory that is both succeeding and sustainable. To do so, he must first lead his own principals -- quietly -- and then the country toward his preferred outcome.

A consensus-based model at this stage also makes sense because it can include Karzai in the process. The surge in Iraq was preceded by a number of conversations between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Those interactions gave the Iraqi leadership a vital sense of ownership in decisions that would affect the future of their country. The policy debate in Washington is only one side of the discussion, and often the less important one.

So it came as a good sign on June 6 when Obama held a private videoconference with Karzai to discuss the ongoing review process. It was also a good sign when the White House spokesman later that day squelched reports of gaping internal divisions over Afghanistan policy within the administration, saying, "There is not enormous debate about this." The process since then has been well disciplined and focused on the narrow question of pacing U.S. troop withdrawals.

Not everyone will be happy with the results. Some will want steeper troop cuts, others will want less or none. But it is natural after 18 months of surge operations -- nearly twice as long as the full surge in Iraq -- to begin a transition in Afghanistan and to set U.S. policy on a longer-term trajectory. And a policy review geared toward building consensus within the U.S. government should help with what comes next, the most difficult phase of all: executing the policy.

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  • BRETT MCGURK is a visiting scholar at Columbia University School of Law. He is a former Special Assistant to the President on Iraq and Afghanistan and served on the national security staffs in the Bush and Obama administrations.
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