Did you say McChrystal or MacArthur?


By the time you read this article, President Barack Obama should have decided whether to keep General Stanley McChrystal on as his commander in Afghanistan, or accept his resignation. Whatever he settles on, the problem with the Afghan campaign is not McChrystal, it’s that Obama has ensnared himself in a war he is unlikely to win.

McChrystal put his career on the line because he and his advisers couldn’t keep their mouths shut in the presence of a Rolling Stone writer, speaking critically of Obama and senior members of his national security team. The general recalled that the president seemed “uncomfortable and intimidated” at his first gathering with military brass after taking office. More egregiously, a McChrystal adviser noted that at the general’s first one-to-one meeting with the president, “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his f––ing war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

Still, what McChrystal and his entourage said was hardly unprecedented. Tension between the military and civilian leadership is a staple of warfare, particularly in democracies. General Douglas MacArthur was fired by President Harry Truman during the Korean war, and McChrystal himself took over from General David McKiernan, who had been fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

From a command perspective, there appear to be two major obstacles in Afghanistan: It’s not at all clear that Obama has the political and financial means, or the public backing, to pursue the war in the long term in a way that he and his generals would prefer; and, to an extent deriving from this, the administration is bitterly divided over what to do next in the country, which makes for considerable confusion all the way up the decision-making hierarchy, civilian and military.

McChrystal was caught grumbling on the record, but what of the dozens of administration civilians involved in Afghan policy who have leaked anonymously against each other during recent months? They won’t be held accountable for their actions, even though they have been no less responsible than the general for undermining confidence in the war effort. But then again, is Afghanistan worth the effort?

When Obama took office he made a point of saying that he wanted a Cabinet that was full of individuals who could assert themselves. It was duly noted that he had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” on Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet during the American Civil War. Lincoln was surrounded by headstrong men, several of whom were openly contemptuous of the president, with political agendas quite different than his. And yet by force of personality Lincoln managed gradually to outmaneuver his Cabinet secretaries one by one and manipulate them in ways that were advantageous to him.

Obama made the mistake of saying that he would seek to replicate this experience, that he didn’t want pushovers in his administration either. Perhaps he didn’t realize it at the time, but the statement was hubristic. The president has not proven himself to be the equal of Lincoln, nor has he even managed to impose unity in the ranks. The reason for this is that he has contradictory aims in Afghanistan. Where Lincoln had one overriding purpose, to defend the union, sometimes with great ruthlessness, Obama wants to win in Afghanistan, but within a limited timeframe, after which he will reconsider his options, all the time realizing that he is pursuing a narrow counter-terrorism program that has somehow morphed into a major state-building enterprise, one he probably cannot afford.

Confused? Aren’t’ we all. And you can add to that that Obama’s promotion of Afghanistan as the “right war” during his election campaign was primarily brought on by his loathing for President George W. Bush. Whatever one thinks of Bush, it was never a good idea for Obama to shape his policies as a counterpoint to those of his predecessor. This impulse has pushed Obama to leave behind a vacuum in the Middle East through his accelerated, ill-thought-out withdrawal from Iraq; and it is sinking him in Afghanistan.

Obama’s choices with McChrystal were never good: If he accepted the general’s resignation, this would have little helped the outcome in Afghanistan. McChrystal is the architect of the American counter-insurgency plan, and with deadlines so short it wasn’t easy for Obama to hand off to another commander, who even if he applied the plan to the letter, by no means a certainty, would have needed time to ease into his new post. And if the president kept McChrystal in place, that wouldn’t alter the fact that Obama had to resolve his ambiguities over Afghanistan in collaboration with two men he mistrusts, McChrystal and, of course, the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Similar confusion was present in Iraq, until Bush took the decision to order a “surge” of troops in 2007, against the advice of many of those around him. His administration, too, was a prisoner of clashing policies and ambitions, but in that particular instance Bush showed he could lead, something he had failed to do before then. The president also named a new commander, David Petraeus, to direct the effort. Obama thought he had done all this by naming McChrystal and ordering a surge of his own last year in Afghanistan. But the key question he left unresolved was whether, like Bush in Iraq, he was as stubbornly committed to seeing Afghanistan through as he said.

That uncertainty is why McChrystal and his people raised doubts about Obama’s engagement, and it’s why Karzai has lately been reorienting himself toward Pakistan, who he surely feels will outlast the United States in Kabul. Money is a vital matter. Washington simply cannot pay for an indefinite Afghan war. No wonder Obama was angry with McChrystal. The general only highlighted how weak a hand the Americans hold. But in the end the president is to blame.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. His “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster) has just been published.

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