An interesting sidebar to the debate sparked by the leak of General McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review is the question of how such debates should take place to begin with.

Duke political scientist and former Clinton and Bush 43 NSA staffer Peter Feaver believes “the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post.” But, of course, that’s simply not how it works in Washington or perhaps any other democracy. Leaks to the press have been a tactic for shifting the debate from time immemorial.

But retired Army Special Forces colonel and DIA senior executive Pat Lang argues the fact that the uniformed services are the most obvious leak candidates changes the calculus:

This highly classified document was artfully leaked by those who wish to “bulldoze” Obama and Gates into accepting an unlimited commitment to a nation building counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.  McChrystal can not be faulted for having an opinion and for being honest enough to express that opinion, but he is walking close to the edge of the cliff if he begins to attempt to dictate the mission of his own command.  Macarthur could explain that to him if he were still around.

Now, I’m not going to accuse McChrystal of orchestrating the leak.  It’s highly conceivable that it was someone else in the chain who was getting frustrated with waiting for President Obama to make a decision on what our strategy is.  It is worth noting, however, that McChrystal was chosen to replace David McKiernan partly because he had demonstrated himself adept at the Washington game:

It reflects a view among senior Pentagon officials that top generals need to be as adept at working Washington as they are the battlefield, that the conflict in Afghanistan requires a leader who can also win the confidence of Congress and the American public.

McKiernan is an understated and reticent man; his 37-year career involved more than two decades of overseas deployments but less than a year at the Pentagon. He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq. He also did not cultivate particularly strong relationships with Afghan leaders. His replacement, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is regarded as a leader in the Petraeus mold: able to nimbly run the troops on the ground as well as the traps in Washington.

“Blame General Petraeus,” a senior Defense Department official said. “He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus’s standards, he looked old-school by comparison.”

Obviously, that’s a double edged sword.  A traditional soldier is likely to respond “Yes, sir — three bags full” to orders from Washington; a political general is likely to try to shape the conditions in Washington to get what he believes he needs to achieve his mission.  And, indeed, to shape his mission.

And, as George Washington Middle East scholar Marc Lynch notes, the findings of the report that everyone’s talking about not only “contained little that we didn’t already know from copious earlier leaks, op-eds, and background briefings” but were essentially a foregone conclusion:

The “strategic review” brought together a dozen smart (mostly) think-tankers with little expertise in Afghanistan but a general track record of supporting calls for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy.  They set up shop in Afghanistan for a month working in close coordination with Gen. McChrystal, and emerged with a well-written, closely argued warning that the situation is dire and a call for more troops and a new counter-insurgency strategy. Shocking. Were it not for the optics of a leaked “strategic review” amidst an intensifying public debate, I doubt this would dominate the front pages.

Lynch is very optimistic from the president”s statements over the weekends and various reporting that “Obama is clearly listening to all sides of the argument, and is thinking about the strategic big picture as well as the tactical questions about operations and troop levels inside of Afghanistan.” Given that,

It would be a shame if this turns into an “Obama vs the Generals” narrative, as some clearly hope. While we’re all on edge over this important policy decision, it seems to me that Obama’s doing what he’s supposed to do: asking the big questions about strategy and the wider set of American interests and resource commitments, while taking into account the predictable requests for more resources from the field commander. And McChrystal is doing what he’s supposed to do:  carefully assess the assignment he’s been given and ask for the resources he thinks he needs to do the job.  And, for that matter, Ambassador Holbrooke and his team are doing what they are supposed to do.

These are tough decisions, with no really good answers.  While I am very skeptical about both the prospects for success and about the claimed costs of failure, I certainly don’t feel confident that I know the right policy — hence the importance of the public debate which has emerged these last couple of months.   These kinds of artificial political narratives and selective leaks will only make it less likely that the right choices get made.

Those thoughts are echoed by CNAS’ Andrew Exum — one of the think tankers who helped craft the review — praises the recent testimony of Steve Biddle — another one of the think tankers who helped craft the review — for his thoughtful case for the war. 

No one can accuse me of glossing over the difficulties of the war in Afghanistan on this blog, but I have heard very few people make the case against the war while admitting that withdrawal might carry with it serious costs or that those who think the war is in the U.S. interest at the moment might have some evidence on their side as well. (And it’s not an either/or debate, right? There might be operational choices other than COIN that safeguard U.S. interests. But those who would advocate those choices owe it to us to operationalize them and show us what they would look like on the ground as well as what risks they would run.)

Whatever decision is made on Afghanistan should be made in a careful and deliberate manner, with various sides making cases for courses of action based on interests, resources, risks and a clear-eyed understanding of both the environment in Afghanistan and Pakistan and U.S. and allied capabilities.

This prescription would be banal were it actually practiced. In reality, however, as Thomas Rid recently argued, the debate is often shrill and fails to address the substantive arguments of the opposition.  Further, as Hugh De Santis notes, we seldom divorce the foreign policy debate from domestic political games.

Still, the tide has certainly shifted, with the Washington consensus that “winning” in Afghanistan is necessary having given way to serious doubts about whether “winning” is even possible — or even if we know what it means.  Inertia and calls from respected generals for more troops to “finish what we’ve started” will likely prevail in the short run but, absent a rapid change in perception, it will be incumbent on the pro war side to make the case for staying the course.

Yes, one might prefer that debate take place according to a set of rules from a fabled age of civility, where politics stopped at the water’s edge, generals were unfailingly deferential to civilian political leadership, and nothing was ever leaked to the press.   But, alas, it will take place in the real world.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.\