The administration has just announced that the president will give a prime-time address on December 1, with the presumption being that the speech will largely center on his decision regarding troop levels in Afghanistan. Despite the fact that President Obama loves to say he rejects “false choices” — the latest example being Time magazine’s revelation that back in May he complained he didn’t “like my options” when he was compelled to choose between releasing detainee photos and not releasing detainee photos — his will be a moment of choosing, and he will not be able to make it out otherwise.
It is conceivable that a brilliant policy process over the past three months has coughed up a brilliant new option other than General McChrystal’s plan to deploy 40,000 new troops in a counterinsurgency strategy — a plan defended and explained authoritatively by Max Boot in COMMENTARY’s November issue — or the counterterrorism strategy supposedly championed by Joe Biden, which effectively abandons any serious effort to secure victory against the Taliban. But the administration’s second-rate foreign-policy process, exposed in the universal sense that his Asia trip was meaningless at best and a colossal bungle at worst, is unlikely to have generated such a brilliant new strategy.
So it’s McChrystal or nothing — because even modified McChrystal, in which deployments are slowed down and a great deal of attention is given the prospect of pulling out if things get worse in the short run, is likely to be ineffective. (If the general needed fewer troops, why on earth wouldn’t he have asked for fewer troops? It’s more believable that he needs even more but knew he was straining the system to ask for 40,000.)
This time of choosing is portentous. It will give some sense of whether Obama is finally surrendering to the logic of the presidency, in which you have to deal with the world as it is and make policy out of the materials at hand rather than wishing bad stuff away. If he does so, he will announce his acceptance of the McChrystal plan, and he will take a giant step toward filling the Oval Office in the way it needs to be filled. If he continues to reject the logic of the presidency, and continue along a path of willed fecklessness, he will be making an active choice for defeat — the defeat of the United States in a war he once described as a “war of necessity.” He would be the first president in history to make such a choice consciously and with every reason to understand that this would be the choice — the parlous choice, the monstrous choice — he is making.