Of course, McChrystal deserves to be reprimanded for letting a reporter make him and his staff look like arrogant jerks. But by focusing on McChrystal’s supposed challenge to Obama’s manhood—is the president afraid of his generals? Will Obama show that he can’t be pushed around?—the press is turning a story about policy into a story about penises. What matters isn’t what McChrystal said about Obama; it’s what he believes about Afghanistan. That’s why he should lose his job.
For close to a year now, it’s been painfully clear that McChrystal, with the backing of David Petraeus and the rest of the top military brass, wants America to make an unlimited commitment to the Afghan war. Counterinsurgency, they believe, works; all it requires is an unlimited amount of money and time. As Jonathan Alter details in his book, The Promise, McChrystal and company spent last summer waging a media and bureaucratic campaign aimed at forcing Obama to make that unlimited commitment. Obama resisted, insisting on a timeline for beginning America’s withdrawal. But the fight goes on. In his book, Alter quotes Biden as pledging that “In July of 2011, you’re going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it.” Confronted with that quote last weekend, Robert Gates shot Biden down, declaring that “that absolutely has not been decided.”
Obama’s problem isn’t that McChrystal is talking smack about him. His problem is that McChrystal isn’t pursuing his foreign policy. McChrystal wants to “win” the war in Afghanistan (whatever that means) no matter what it takes. Obama believes that doing whatever it takes will cost the U.S. so much money, and so distract the administration from other concerns, that it will cripple his efforts to stabilize America’s finances and rebuild American economic power. That’s the struggle that Hastings exposes: between a single-minded general who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission and a president who believes that even if that mission saves Afghanistan, it could bankrupt the United States. It’s a struggle about whether America is going to adjust to the new limits on its power or pretend that they don’t exist.
That’s the real relevance of the Harry Truman-Douglas MacArthur analogy. Truman didn’t just fire MacArthur because the general treated him with disrespect. He fired him because MacArthur wanted to do whatever it took to liberate the Korean peninsula, including bombing mainland China, whereas Truman came to realize that Korea must be a limited war, fought merely to preserve South Korean independence. In insisting that America’s Cold War strategy be the containment of communism, not the rollback of communism, Truman kept the pursuit of military victory from destroying American power.
Now Obama must do the same. Last summer, he tried to split the difference—surging in Afghanistan while simultaneously pledging to retreat on the theory that within eighteen months the U.S. could so weaken the Taliban that they would sue for peace. Six months in, that strategy looks increasingly absurd. As its most honest proponents concede, counterinsurgency is a long, messy business, especially when the president whose country you’re trying to save is indifferent, if not hostile, to the effort. In all likelihood, when the deadline for troop withdrawal arrives a year from now, Obama will be forced to choose between something that looks like an unlimited commitment and something that looks like defeat. He’ll be forced to make the choice that he avoided last year.
My only quibbles with this superb analysis is that I think I might be a little less generous in my assumptions about what Obama thinks, and about what his foreign policy is. Obama chose Afganistan, chose, in some ways, to affirm and extend the Bush policy. Obama certainly changed the attitude of the U.S. toward Pakistan, and dramatically, but, in the main, Obama chose to continue and escalate the War in Afganistan, without, to my mind, clearly articulating achievable goals and objectives, or identifying the means to do so.
My general view is that Obama is a Master Politician, who focuses his calculation on the political consequences, meaning by "political", the consequences on attitudes and conventional wisdom among the elite, particularly the Media elite, and among the bullies of the Right. How it will look, in other words, in the public relations contest.
Sadly, I don't think he has much of an appreciation, at the end of the day, for the consequences of policy. He's a strategic thinker in political terms, but not a strategic thinker in policy terms. At least not most of the time.
He did what he thought was politically wise, with regard to Afganistan. But, the lack of policy substance in his choice was betrayed by the failure to outline genuine and achievable goals and objectives for the continued war in Afganistan. He left a policy vacuum.
And, McChrystal and Petraeus and Gates drove their trucks into that policy vacuum. Obama did not discipline McChrystal when the general deviated from Obama's foreign policy strategy, because Obama did not really have a foreign policy strategy in Afganistan. Obama had only the appearance of a strategy, thrown up long enough to do what he thought needed to be done, politically. After that he trusted his subordinates to fill in the blanks, with a real policy and strategy, the one Beinart disparages.
I acknowledge that Obama has a formal process in place, which, I suppose, is something. Very large organizations need formal processes, not because leaders need them to make deliberate decisions, which is how Obama's process is portrayed in the Media, but because a formal process is needed in order that the operational meaning of the policy in action, at the lowest levels, is in accord with intention at the top. This isn't just a top-down process, there's a role for feedback, and educating the guys at the top.
This process is not working. The Rolling Stone article was quite clear that McChrystal is failing, and knows he's failing, to get his ideas on counterinsurgency strategy and tactics, to percolate down through the ranks, without serious and debilitating distortions. McChrystal was not succeeding, and didn't know who to blame, and did not know how to digest what soldiers on the front lines were telling him about how it is, out there.
That's a serious, serious problem. McChrystal, after being fired, did not participate in the top-level reviews, today, at the White House. That's understandable on one level, but curious on another, because one would hope that top-level policy-makers, looking abject failure in the face, would be a bit more curious about what is going on, in the field.