Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Clinton, Obama, Afghanistan: A Thought Experiment

With Obama’s decision on Afghanistan imminent and Bill Clinton’s World Business Forum speech still resonant, we thought we’d do something of a thought experiment on leadership and decision-making.

What counsel might Clinton give President Obama on Afghanistan? Specifically, how would Clinton break down the current conundrum, and what advice on leadership and decision-making would he offer?

“Should we escalate in Afghanistan? I have three answers: Yes. No. Maybe.

September 11 has taught us that an unstable Afghanistan is a direct threat to the American people. That’s what makes this so different from Vietnam. Leaving the country will afford Al-Qaeda the same terrorist haven they enjoyed on September 10... and this time without as much resistance from a Northern Alliance.

Victory depends on commitment, and you don’t have it from the American people. Not even from your own Vice President. Americans want jobs, not increasing bloodshed abroad. Escalation without commitment will lead to another Vietnam.

The Afghan people will support that group which cares for their children. Currently, they’re supporting the Taliban, but mostly out of fear. If we helped the Afghans build a sustainable country that was safer and more prosperous for their children, the Taliban wouldn’t have a chance.

The Afghan government is corrupt. We can build schools and train laborers, but buildings and skills will be gone or devalued once we leave, unless the Afghan government is there to support them. It’s unclear whether they have the will, or even the capability, to do that.

Pakistan is unstable; it’s also a crucial partner for success in Afghanistan. If they continue to assist the Afghan Taliban as a way to counterbalance India’s influence, or if a coup replaces the current regime with a much more hostile one, then we’ll have no chance of containing the Taliban along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pakistan could be our biggest wild card. Their support is and will be paramount.

Leadership and Decision-making
The considerations are many, related, and complex. Regardless of what you decide, make sure you:
- Have a vision of where you want to go
- Lay out a strategy on how to get there
- Develop specific actions to implement the strategy
And underscore these things with an understanding of not just policy but also of people.

Some of the most difficult decisions I ever made as president were not necessarily the least popular – the unpopular decisions were sometimes easy because I knew what the right answer was – no, the difficult decisions were the ones for which I couldn’t know the right answer… those 10% of presidential decisions that can’t come from policy reports or staff recommendations, but rather must come from intuition. You have to listen and feel your way to the answer. If that happens, the best you can do is level with the people and say that if you’re not right you’ll change.

A great leader is a great decision-maker. You have one hell of a decision to make.”

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