ANALYSIS-Washington leak machine weighs on Afghan review
* Leaks aimed at shaping Obama's strategy
* Lengthy deliberations fuel leak machine
* Calculated leaks are the norm
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, Nov 17 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's review of war strategy in Afghanistan has seen a steady supply of leaks that have portrayed a divided administration riven by factions trying to influence the decision.
Leaks have framed the debate between those who want to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and those who oppose such an escalation.
"One of the dark aspects of the American policy process is the pattern of calculated leaks of classified material and in this case, obviously to affect a presidential decision," said Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and to Pakistan.
It began in September when Army General Stanley McChrystal's classified report that the situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating was leaked, which put pressure on Obama to agree to McChrystal's request for more troops.
Last week, classified cables from the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, who expressed deep reservations about sending more troops until Afghan President Hamid Karzai cracks down on corruption, also landed in the press.
The security breech came at a time when it was fairly well established that Obama planned to send more troops; the question is how many. A decision is expected to be announced in the coming weeks.
Political analysts said the longer Obama takes to decide and the more leaks emerge to underline dissent within his administration, the greater the risk to his credibility.
"It erodes his standing as a strong president," said New York University analyst Paul Light.
Obama ran a disciplined campaign for the White House and successfully kept his team on message. Not so now, as his staff tries to tame chatter across the Pentagon, State Department and White House.
"I don't know that it shifts opinion, but rather it creates the impression that the administration is confused and over-analyzing and can't come to a decision," Light said.
The White House has fought back against claims that Obama is "dithering", saying he did not want to repeat President George W. Bush's rush to invade Iraq.
Many analysts say some leaks have come from Pentagon officials pushing for troop increases at the higher end of the range Obama is considering -- about 40,000.
On a trip to Wisconsin last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was "appalled" at the number of leaks on the Afghan policy debate and the perpetrators should "shut up."
Others suspect sources in the White House or State Department for leaking Eikenberry's classified memos.
"There are some people in the White House who feel the way the process has played out risks boxing Obama in and they want to protect his space," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who does not see a big schism between the military and the White House and believes Obama will ultimately follow the advice of his military commanders.
One Western diplomat said the Eikenberry memos may have been leaked more to put pressure on Karzai before his inauguration this week than for domestic purposes.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman said most leaks had not been very informative anyway, other than to speculate on troop levels, which only the president knew.
"In 50 years, I have never seen an administration not have such leaks. Anyone who sees this as administration-specific is oblivious to reality," said Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said such leaks were typical when a Democrat was president and the military brass, many of whom lean Republican, were out of sync with the White House.
The Clinton administration, he said, leaked "like a sieve".
No matter how many leaks, experts said ultimately all that mattered would be whether Obama's decision works.
"No one will remember the process once they see results. Whether there is success or failure -- that is how people will judge Obama," said Sabato. (Editing by Alan Elsner)
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