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Acheson’s Lessons for Obama

Today is the first of at least five meetings between President Obama and his national-security team to re-examine the strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The president is certainly entitled to engage in intensive discussions on a matter of this magnitude—though it should be said that (a) it’s not as if the issues haven’t been known for quite some time now, and that (b) according to General Stanley McChrystal, who is leading our effort in Afghanistan, there is a particular urgency to making a decision. If McChrystal doesn’t get the additional troops he needs within the next year, his mission will “likely result in failure.” So time is of the essence.

As President Obama reassesses his commitment to the Afghanistan war, he might bear in mind the words of Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state, who wrote this in his extraordinary memoir Present at the Creation:

No one can decide and act who is beset by second thoughts, self-doubt, and that most enfeebling of emotions, regret. With the President a decision made was done with and he went on to another. He learned from mistakes (though he seldom admitted them), and did not waste time bemoaning them. . . . The capacity for decision, however, does not produce, of itself, wise decisions. For that a President needs a better eye and more intuition and coordination than the best batters in the major leagues. If his score is not far better than theirs, he will be rated a failure. But the metaphor is inadequate; it leaves out the necessary creativity. A President is not merely coping with the deliveries of others. He is called upon to influence and move to some degree his own country and the world around it to a purpose that he envisions.

And this:

We escaped, however, from what can be, and often has been . . . endless discussion and inability to decide. General Marshall’s often-quoted ejaculation — “Don’t fight the problem. Decide it!” — put an end to this tendency in his day.

And this:

[Truman] learned also, and learned quickly, the limits of international organization and agreement as means of decision and security in a deeply divided world. Released from the acceptance of a dogma that builders and wreckers of a new world order could and should work happily and successfully together, he was free to combine our power and coordinate our action with those who did have a common purpose.

And this:

Free of the greatest vice in a leader, [Truman’s] ego never came between him and his job. He saw his job and its needs without distortion from that astigmatism.

President Obama could do much worse than read, and learn from, Acheson’s book—perhaps during his flight to Copenhagen, on behalf of Chicago, later this week.


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