Obama's Afghan policy shows nuanced, dispassionate approach

Many Democrats are nostalgic for Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign — for the clarity, for the the bliss-to-be-alive fervor. They argue that these are missing in a cautious, emotionless White House.

But the Obama campaign, like all presidential campaigns, was built on a series of fictions. The first was that government is a contest between truth and error. In reality, government is usually a contest between competing, unequal truths.

The second was that to support a policy is to make it happen. In fact, in it is only by coaxing, prodding and compromise that presidents actually get anything done.

The third was that we can begin the world anew. In fact, all problems and policies have already been worked by a thousand hands and the clay is mostly dry. Presidents are compelled to work with the material they have before them.

The fourth was that leaders know the path ahead. In fact, they have general goals, but the way ahead is pathless and everything is shrouded by uncertainty.

All presidents have to adjust to these realities. The only surprise with Obama is how enthusiastically he has made the transition.

His governing style is biased toward complexity. This style has never been more evident than in his decision to expand the war in Afghanistan. Most war presidents cast themselves as heroes on a white charger, believing that no one heeds an uncertain trumpet.

Obama, on the other hand, cloaked himself in what you might call Niebuhrian modesty (after Roland Niebuhr, the American theologian credited with writing the "Serenity Prayer": "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change ..."). His decision to expand the war is the most morally consequential one of his presidency so far, yet as the moral stakes rose, Obama's emotional temperature cooled to just above freezing. His speech Tuesday balanced the arguments within his administration by leading the country deeper in while pointing the way out.

Despite the ambivalence, he did act. This is not mishmash. With his two surges, Obama will more than double the number of American troops in Afghanistan.

Those new troops are not themselves a strategy; they are enablers of an evolving strategy. Over the next year, there will be disasters, errors and surprises — as in all wars. But the generals will have more resources with which to cope and respond.We have no way of knowing now how those troops will end up being used. And we have no clue if it will be wise to withdraw them in July 2011.

The advantage of the Obama governing style is that his argument-based organization is a learning organization. Amid the torrent of memos and evidence and dispute, the Obama administration is able to adjust and respond faster than, say, the Bush administration ever did.

The disadvantage is the tendency to bureaucratize the war. Armed conflict is about morale, motivation, honor, fear and breaking the enemy's will. The danger is that Obama's analytic mode will fail to inspire and comfort. Soldiers and Marines don't have the luxury of adopting Obama's calibrated stance since they are being asked to potentially sacrifice everything.

Barring a scientific breakthrough, we can't merge Obama's analysis with George W. Bush's passion. But we should still be glad that he is governing the way he is. I loved covering the Obama campaign. But amid problems like Afghanistan and health care, it simply wouldn't do to give gauzy speeches about the meaning of "hope." It is in Obama's nature to lead a government by symposium. Embrace the complexity. Learn to live with the dispassion.