Commentary Magazine


The Military vs. Obama

The news of the day is certainly Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone magazine and the potential fallout. Fox News reports:

The article says that although McChrystal voted for Obama, the two failed to connect from the start. Obama called McChrystal on the carpet last fall for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal said in the article, on newsstands Friday. “I was selling an unsellable position.” It quoted an adviser to McChrystal dismissing the early meeting with Obama as a “10-minute photo op.” “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. The boss was pretty disappointed,” the adviser told the magazine.

The article claims McChrystal has seized control of the war “by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”

Asked by the Rolling Stone reporter about what he now feels of the war strategy advocated by Biden last fall – fewer troops, more drone attacks – McChrystal and his aides reportedly attempted to come up with a good one-liner to dismiss the question. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal reportedly joked. “Who’s that?”

Biden initially opposed McChrystal’s proposal for additional forces last year. He favored a narrower focus on hunting terrorists.

“Biden?” one aide was quoted as saying. “Did you say: Bite me?”

Another aide reportedly called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”

Some of the strongest criticism, however, was reserved for Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” one of the general’s aides was quoted as saying. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

If [Karl] Eikenberry had doubts about the troop buildup, McChrystal said he never expressed them until a leaked internal document threw a wild card into the debate over whether to add more troops last November. In the document, Eikenberry said Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not a reliable partner for the counterinsurgency strategy McChrystal was hired to execute.

McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” and accused the ambassador of giving himself cover.

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal told the magazine. “Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.”‘

Yeah, wow. There are two issues here — McChrystal’s behavior and the president’s management of the war.

As to the first, Dana Perino wisely advises, “Unless you’re Al Gore or Robert F. Kennedy Jr., if Rolling Stone calls, it’s not because they want to do a positive profile about you.” It was, as McChrystal concedes, a lapse in judgment and a very bad idea to spill his guts to any reporter. He’s been called to Washington to “explain” himself to Obama. Should he be fired? If he is doing his job and is essential to the war effort, then no. But Obama could well decide otherwise. The president is a notoriously thin-skinned man and may also see this as a strategic opportunity to show how tough he is. (Yes, he has the annoying habit of demonstrating how tough he is to someone/some country other than an enemy — Israel, not Iran, for example.)

The substance of what McChrystal is saying is obscured somewhat by the personalized tone (no doubt encouraged by the Rolling Stone reporter to whom the general should not have spoken). But the gravamen of what he is saying is serious and deeply troubling. He is giving voice to what many have been fretting about and what critics outside the administration have been harping on for some time: the White House and the civilian leadership are hampering our war effort. This is not a question of “civilian control”; the president has already declared, albeit with caveats and reservations, that he considers it vital to prevail in Afghanistan. The issue is whether the White House is competent enough and its advisers grown-up enough to support and not hinder the military.

At the very least, this demonstrates Obama’s complete failure to manage the war and to gain the confidence of the military. When this occurs, you can blame the general (again, he’s not disobeying operational orders but merely speaking out of school), but the fault lies with the commander in chief. McChrystal may resign or be fired, but his successor will have the same problems unless the White House gets it act together.