Obama’s Decision: Not So “McChrystal” Clear

The following was originally written on June 23, 2010.

At 9:30 this morning, President Obama met with General Stanley McChrystal, the US military’s top commander in Afghanistan. The meeting could very well determine the future of American policy in the region. And it was prompted by a spate of name calling made public by a bearded hipster journalist for the Rolling Stone.

Michael Hastings’ piece (full article here) contained all of the trademarks of a Rolling Stone political story: Under-informed assertions supported by sources of dubious credibility and/or motives, not-too-subtle signs of hatred for both the Republican Party and military establishment, and gratuitous use of the oh-so-edgy “f-bomb”. More importantly, the story managed to massively complicate a situation in Afghanistan that was already, in the language of the troops, FUBAR (definition). Seemingly at fault is McChrystal, whose inexplicable laxity of lip in the presence of a writer clearly out for dirt gave Hastings just that. Yet the general’s gaffes, however much his own fault, were more the result of an awkward marriage of a domestically inclined president to an infinitely complicated foreign operation. Furthermore, this marriage was forced by the combination of an anti-incumbent national mood with a still ardently patriotic electorate.

History is rife with accidents and coincidences, but the election of Barack Obama to the nation’s highest office was not one of them. The preceding presidency of George W. Bush ostracized just about everyone in the country and created an electoral atmosphere rife for the taking from a “different” candidate. Many erstwhile opposing political forces found common ground in their disdain for Bush. Progressives and libertarians hated his moralist policies at home and his nation-building abroad. Small government conservatives and “third way” (aka Clintonian) Democrats found his massive prescription medication bill (basically a kickback to influential senior citizen voters) repulsive. Fiscal hawks and libertarians cringed at the massive increase in federal debt. Wilsonian Democrats and centrist Republicans regretted Bush’s repeated snubs of international leaders and supranational organizations such as the EU. Everyone outside of neoconservative circles opposed the Iraq War and the accompanying expansion of government wiretapping and surveillance powers.

In retrospect, it is no wonder thus that Barack Huessein Obama earned a landslide victory. The nation could agree on very little save for a hatred of all things George W. Bush. Change was needed, and candidate Obama represented just that. Personally and professionally the contrasts to Bush could not have been more numerous. Bush was the well-connected white frat boy with pedestrian test scores and an imperfect dialect; Obama was the well-spoken, self-made black intellectual and former constitutional law professor. Bush seemed intellectually disinterested and reliant on a network of his dad’s old cronies (Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) to make the tough decisions; candidate Obama was a lawyer type who would accept nothing without his own examination.

Many people forget, however, that candidate Obama was a massive underdog to defeat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. Clinton was backed by the name and resources of her husband, who is still one of the most beloved Democratic presidents in our nation’s history. Clinton had a massive edge in name recognition, campaign funds, and political experience. What she also had was a “yea” vote for Senate Joint Resolution 46, or, the bill that sent the US to war with Iraq. For all of Obama’s credentials, it was ultimately his “nea” vote on SJR 46 that won him the Democratic primary.

Candidate Obama repeatedly stressed this contrast with Clinton during the primaries to win over liberal voters. And then, as all successful presidential candidates have done, he turned from his party’s base towards the electoral center for the general election. In Obama’s case, he recognized that a platform of pure pacifism and international isolationism would not win over a nation that was still generally supportive of American military operations, if not the Iraq War specifically. So while the anti-Bush idea could work with almost all of his policy proposals, Obama could not go so far as to decry military interventions as a whole, especially when running against a former Vietnam POW in John McCain. Thus, Obama claimed, Iraq was the “bad” war, from which he promised a speedy extrication, and the minimally resourced Afghanistan conflict was the “good” war.

Like the firebrand Democrat Lyndon Johnson, what President Obama really wanted was to conduct a low risk, low reward foreign policy in order to save political capital (aka “the amount of stuff you can ask Congress and voters for before they stop listening to you”) for an ambitious domestic agenda. He surrounded himself with experienced, competent military minds in order to let them run the show: General Petraeus (Commander of US Central Command) and Robert Gates (Secretary of Defense) both maintained their previous positions from the Bush administration. McChrystal, a highly respected “intellectual warrior” and friend of Petraeus, was left to run the show in Afghanistan. In so doing, Obama got hawkish voters off of his back long enough to initiate his domestic plans, including a massive policy victory in passing comprehensive health care reform.

But then things got tricky. The logic was that Iraq was an unnecessary war of imperialism against an enemy that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks. Afghanistan was a war of self defense, not choice, as America was simply defending itself against the Taliban. When it became apparent in early 2010 that Afghanistan, a country with far less infrastructure and far rougher terrain than Iraq, wouldn’t be easily won, the so-called war of necessity was called into doubt by the administration.

When the President chaffed at adding troops and mentioned a timetable for withdrawal (both deemed inimical to winning the war by McChrystal), McChrystal likely flipped. Here was the ultimate “can-do” guy who fully believed he was brought into Afghanistan to win the war, now being told that he wasn’t actually there to win. (Or, more specifically, that he wouldn’t be given the political cover or material resources to do so.) Obama granted McChrystal additional troops, albeit 40,000 when he asked for thousands more. It is little wonder that the general held his CiC in contempt, as he likely realized that he had been used as a pawn to bolster the President’s foreign policy credentials rather than to actually win a war.

The President now faces a dilemma. Does he believe that Afghanistan truly is a war of necessity? McChrystal’s bravado and intellect will be unmatched by any replacement. If the goal is to “win” in Afghanistan, Obama would be foolish to replace a seasoned general over a few off the record remarks. If, in the likelier scenario, the President decides that Afghanistan is not vital to American security, he will dismiss the general and replace him with a figurehead who will comply with a retreat “tactical advance to the rear”. Either way, while McChrystal comes out of this drama shamed, it is the President who made it such.

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