Last week the president and his Afghan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, met for a strategy “summit” aboard Air Force One, while parked at Copenhagen’s airport – a meeting the White House, in a deft show of verbal dexterity, called, “productive” - definitely not a synonym for “they agreed”.
President Barack Obama has reached a crucial moment in his young presidency – he must decide how to re-orientate his administration’s Afghan strategy to avoid military failure in that country itself and prevent giving his opposition a way to pin failure on him. The president’s 25-minute meeting with McChrystal (immediately after Obama’s effort to secure the 2016 Olympics for Chicago had failed), gave the president a chance to speak directly with his ground commander for only the second time since McChrystal went to Afghanistan. Obama now faces a difficult and potentially make-or-break three-way decision – should he add 30,000 – 40,000 new troops to the war (as McChrystal wants), alter the overall strategy by pulling back to key cities, or take the fight to al-Qaeda in the mountains of Pakistan and away from the Taliban. His senior advisors in Washington are split on which path to follow. Worse, any of these choices has the potential for political fallout, should the selected alternative not succeed. This Obama/McChrystal meeting is being described as an extension of the administration’s recent war council sessions “as we reassess and re-evaluate moving forward in Afghanistan,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. Calling the plane talks “helpful”, Gibbs added that no decisions had been made. In government-speak, “helpful” often means they didn’t agree, but at least the air had been cleared. A Pentagon spokesman said McChrystal’s troop request is still under consideration, but “I don’t see anything in the short term”.
The president had originally been expected to approve McChrystal’s plan to mount a military push against the Taliban in Afghanistan, especially since he had earlier called Afghanistan an “essential war”. But public support for the war back home continues to decline and his commanders’ call for as many as 40,000 more US troops has exposed real fault lines among his senior advisors. It’s possible Obama will select none of the current alternatives – instead splitting the difference by keeping the current force of nearly 70,000 troops in place, but adding an influx of military trainers to the mix and significantly increasing airstrikes on al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s rugged north-western districts.
Secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Afghan/Pakistan special envoy Richard Holbrooke are apparently leaning toward a troop increase, while White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and General James Jones, Obama’s national security adviser, are said to be sceptical about troop increases. Meanwhile, vice-president Joe Biden favours targeting al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.
While the circumstances aren’t identical, this meeting recalls another nearly 60 years ago – this time on Wake Island in the Pacific between president Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Truman ultimately relieved MacArthur of command because of the general’s reluctance to accept that political and strategic decisions were the constitutional prerogative of the country’s civilian leadership not its field commanders. While the parallel can easily be over-drawn, McChrystal’s blunt speech in Britain about the need for more troops and further, similarly emphatic statements, has already led one Washington Post columnist, Yale law Professor Bruce Ackerman to remark, “Generals shouldn’t need to be told that it is wrong to lecture their presidents in public”. He added, “Unless McChrystal publicly recognises that he has crossed the line, future generals will become even more aggressive in their efforts to browbeat presidents.” Ackerman concludes, “We have no need for a repeat of the showdown between Truman and MacArthur over Korea. Truman faced down his general the last time around, but it was a bruising experience. Though McChrystal may feel ‘crushed,’ he should show more self-restraint. Indeed, his breach should provoke a broader discussion of the meaning of civilian control in the 21st century.”
By Brooks Spector