The Ethics of Dithering

At some point, delaying  an important leadership decision stops being resposnible, and begins being unethical.

The White House put out word today that President Obama’s decision regarding troop levels in Afghanistan is on the verge of being revealed. When it is, a few things are certain. If his decision is to increase troop levels to the degree requested by the Pentagon, Obama’s pacifist Left supporters will be furious. If it is to withhold more troops and prepare for U.S, withdrawal, supporters of an aggressive war policy on the Right will go on the attack. If it is anything in between, neither of these camps will be happy.

It is also certain that nobody will be able to tell if what the President has decided is the “right” decision. He can and will explain his reasoning; there will be experts brought out to confirm the wisdom of his course of action. Nevertheless, there will be no way to settle the issue of whether or not it was “right.” If the results of his decision is ultimately seen as “good,” and at this point I have no idea what that would be, then most will say the decision was “right.” “Lucky” will be a better word, just as Obama will be unlucky if his carefully considered course turns into a military and international disaster. The U.S. could have discovered “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq after the invasion, after all.

Or, if the U.S. had decided to defer action, Saddam Hussein might have launched a biological weapon attack on a neighboring country—if he had such weapons, as we thought at the time. In war, and often in life, there is no way to know when even the most carefully considered decisions represent the best choices. Best choices backfire. Dumb choices work out. Robert E. Lee gets the blame for Pickett’s Charge, his disastrous, risky frontal attack on the last day of the battle of Gettysburg. Indeed, it may have lost the Civil War for the South, but as many historians have pointed out, it could have worked. If it had, would we be calling it one of Lee’s brilliant stratagems? Or would it just be another dumb move that lucked out? There is no way to know.

That, essentially, is what is most obviously wrong with President Obama’s decision-making process on the Afghanistan war. He has been searching for the perfect answer when there is no such beast, and doing so while the situation is deteriorating, leaks about his process are proliferating, and American soldiers are dying. There are many potential explanations for the delay that would require condemnation of Obama as unethical, irresponsible and even despicable, such as…

  • Delaying the decision to avoid distracting from his health care reform efforts. When the lives of U.S. soldiers and American security are at stake, they have to be the prime concern, not sacrificial pawns in pursuit of domestic agenda items.
  • Delaying out of fear of political fall-out from his supporters on the far Left, if he really believes that troop increases are necessary. That would be allowing personal political considerations to pollute his duty and warp his best judgment as Commander-in-Chief.
  • Being conflicted over the burden of being named the Nobel Peace Prize recipient, thus allowing foreign interests to manipulate his judgment in a matter of American interests
  • Concern over appearing to act in violation of his campaign promises. Recall that during the campaign, Obama was very certain about the right course in Afghanistan. On September 9, 2008, he said…

“His [ President Bush’s ] plan comes up short. There’s not enough troops, not enough resources and not enough    urgency. What President Bush and Senator McCain don’t understand is that the central front in the War on Terror is not in Iraq and never was. The central front is in Afghanistan and Pakistan where the terrorists who hit us on 9-11   are still plotting attacks seven years later.”

Although many of Obama’s critics and a lot of his supporters believe that this was an intentional deception at the time, we should presume that the candidate was just as sure as he sounded. It doesn’t matter now. The duty of a President is to do what he feels needs to be done when it needs to be done, not to follow through on a campaign pledge to bolster his reputation integrity at the expense of the nation. ( This is exactly what President Bush did when he kept his promise to lower taxes despite undertaking the unanticipated and huge expense of  operating two foreign wars. And thus the mega-deficit was born…) This is one of the situations where breaking a promise can be more ethical than keeping it.

Any of these would be unethical, if they were driving the delay in Obama’s decision-making. Assuming, however, that the President has been seeking the right decision without being influenced by fear, conflicts of interest or misplaced fealty to outdated campaign rhetoric, his deliberation process has still been irresponsible.

Vice-President Cheney called it “dithering,” and that was a month ago.  Whatever you may think of Cheney, he chose an apt word. Leaders have to make decisions, not endlessly consider the consequences of making decisions. With a situation like Afghanistan, there are a myriad of factors to consider, and they change almost daily, if not faster than that.  One could conceivably, and absurdly, justify never making a decision, because new data is coming in constantly.

Never making a decision is in fact what many of Obama’s supporters prefer. They wish this war, and all wars, would just go away. They want a military decision to be made using anti-military reasoning. Here is the advice of one fan of “dithering”:

“…I say, dither on President Obama. Take your time on this one. Really, really think about this far-reaching choice which, if made in the affirmative, would radically ramp up America’s commitment to the third longest war in our history….Be thoughtful. Take a walk again through Arlington National Cemetery like you did on Veterans Day. Stride past the freshly dug graves of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan…How many more? Take a ride over to Walter Reed Medical Center and talk to some of the soldiers injured in the war – 4,434 as of the latest count – the ones wrapped in bandages and hobbling around on crutches, whose young bodies will never, ever be the same again…Put in some phone calls to the families whose husbands and wives and moms and dads are still in Afghanistan, for a second or third or fourth tour of duty. Who missed the birth of a child, a graduation, a birthday. Who struggle economically on a private’s salary and need food stamps to feed their kids, who dread that late night cell phone call or an unexpected knock on the door….You can patiently listen to the civilians that clamor for you to act “decisively” and “boldly” but remember: Most of them are “chicken hawks.”…Ask them directly – if your 19-year-old was among those about to be ordered into battle, would you send them off to fight over there? Will putting more human firepower in the fight get us closer to a world without war or take us farther away from this divine dream?”

Even if these are the considerations that Obama considers primary ( I especially detest the ever-popular and unethical “what if you had a child…” argument, which posits that the best decisions can only be made by those who have a personal conflict of interest, or that leaders don’t care about the lives of those who are not family members), his dithering is unacceptable. If he holds the same views as the writer, a minister, then delay was unforgivable. Why let one more soldier die? Pull out the troops, let Afghanistan fall into chaos and allow the Taliban to return it to the Dark Ages. Don’t worry about it being a staging area for the next terrorist attack on the U.S.; when and if the terror comes, acknowledge that America has earned the enmity of that part of the world, and rather than retaliate, seek to make amends. If that’s what Obama believes, then he should just do it. He should have done it in January 2008, in fact.

There have been scores of op-ed pieces supporting Obama’s excruciating process, all of which argue that “getting it right” is more important than speed. I would be more supportive of their logic if there was evidence that Obama was dedicating himself deciding as soon as possible. All evidence is to the contrary. He took time to travel abroad and try to get Chicago the Olympics, of all things. He has made fundraising appearances. He has gone to parties. He recently traveled to Asia, for meetings of dubious value. The standard argument coming from the White House is that he can “chew gum and walk” at the same time. So why isn’t the gum chewed yet?

During the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy cancelled most of his other activities so he could devote full time to the job of preventing a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He had a major, future-of-civilization decision to make in every one of those thirteen days, and there was no way to “make sure” that each one was perfect, the very best course of action. He took full responsibility for them, however, and did what leaders have an obligation to do: be decisive, take responsibility, have the courage to risk being wrong. The war in Afghanistan is not as pressing as that epic crisis, obviously, but it is for the American soldiers in harm’s way there, and there is still urgency.

Dithering over a decision is itself a decision. It is a decision to feature thoughtfulness and care over action and decisiveness, and at some point, becomes an endorsement of procrastination and weakness, sending the wrong message to allies and enemies alike. In ethical terms, it raises issues of diligence, accountability, integrity, courage and, ultimately, competence.

President Obama has reached that point; I think it was reached quite a while ago. From here on, any further dithering is not thoughtful, careful or responsible.

It is unethical.


Diversions: For some enlightening quotes on decision-making, go here. If President Obama read all of these, no wonder he’s dithering.


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