Productive Debate – Lessons from ‘This Week’ with George

This Week with George Stephanopoulos was excellent this morning. What made it excellent? They minimized time spent arguing alternatives (more troops or not) and instead engaged in rarely heard, higher-level, and more productive conversation about objectives, critical success factors, and risks.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates refused to engage at the “more troops or risk failure” level. He refused to be sucked into discussions of rifts and politics. When things are not going as desired, some stay the course because they believe consistency, saving face, and adhering to campaign promises are more important than getting good results. Gates refused to argue about the course and the options for achieving that course. Once you admit that things are not going as desired, those arguments are irrelevant. You need to reconsider your strategy. The McChrystal Report says we need more troops if counter insurgency is to be successful. If we are not willing to make the investment suggested by the experts ( the benefits do not outweigh the risks), we need to go back to the drawing board and re-establish our objectives. What else could success look like? If you don’t step up to this level of discussion, you waste your time arguing about whether you want success or failure, as if anyone is advocating for failure.

When things are not going as desired, there is only one course of action that makes sense and that is to reconsider the objectives, the critical success factors, and the risks. One example of this was provided by New York Times columnist Tom Friedman when the Round Table was comparing Iraq to Afghanistan . He pointed out that we don’t have a credible partner in Afghanistan with whom to work. This is a huge critical success factor. This is important for the same reason that I can’t help a company that is run by someone who doesn’t see any need to change or that does not have an appropriate champion taking responsibility for results. I can’t change a company from the outside any more than the US can change Afghanistan from the outside.

Other critical factors mentioned include:

  • money – Iraq has it, Afghanistan will likely follow the bidding of anyone who is willing to supply it
  • Iraq has had a tradition of central governance and Afghanistan never has (The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield helped me appreciate the significance of this)
  • counter terrorism requires an on-the-ground presence to gain intelligence and connections with the people

The guests today also enumerated four options in Afghanistan:

  • status quo
  • counter insurgency
  • counter terrorism
  • get out

and pretty much agreed that these are lousy options. More importantly, they suggested that there have to be additional options, including  variations on these themes.  What a relief compared to the generally debated options:

  • send more troops
  • get out

There are always more options than first meet the eye. But for some reason, the American public and the media seem to glum on to no more than two simple options and then find benefit in going around and around. And when for some strange reason they make no progress, name-calling and lies are used for leverage and counter-assault. Show me any two-sided argument and I’ll show you a debate gone astray and an opportunity to back up and re-frame for better results.

What are we trying to accomplish? What could success in Afghanistan look like? What limitations control our options? What other options exist? President Obama and his team need to establish these before any further discussion of troop levels makes sense.

I wish there were more discussions of this quality. I also wish more Americans were listening to these discussions.