McChrystal vs. Obama

This is the biggest civil-military showdown since Truman and MacArthur.

The showdown has begun. President Obama has ordered General Stanley McChrystal, who is depicted in a long Rolling Stone piece as lambasting Richard Holbrooke and Vice President Biden for disagreeing with him over Afghan policy, to return to Washington, DC.

In his self-pitying remarks, McChrystal also took aim at Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who has previously expressed, to put it mildly, his reservations about Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s leadership.

Now, on Tuesday, McChrystal says, “I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome. I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.”

This could be the biggest public confrontation between the military and the presidency since Harry Truman sacked Douglas MacArthur. In essence, McChrystal is creating a stab-in-the-back myth. The civilians didn’t want to fight the war properly—the military did. Don’t believe a word of it. As Jonathan Alter reports in his book The Promise, Obama got the Pentagon brass on record as agreeing that the surge was giving them everything they wanted. Now it looks like McChrystal reneged.

But no matter how many troops get poured in, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Afghanistan looks like Vietnam or Korea. Then, as now, America was mired in a war that wasn’t going well. The evidence is mounting that Afghanistan can’t be rescued, and, what’s more, none of it suggests that America will be able to extricate itself by July 2011—when the surge is supposed to start unsurging—let alone a decade later. Whether or not the Bush administration bears the blame—and it clearly does bear a lot of it—Afghanistan looks like a loser, a stock that probably wouldn’t even qualify for junk-bond status in the markets.

Consider a devastating new report from Representative John Tierney called “Warlord, Inc., Extortion and Corruption Along the U.S. Supply Chain in Afghanistan” which shows, as the Washington Post puts it today, that the “U.S. military is funding a massive protection racket in Afghanistan, indirectly paying tens of millions of dollars to warlords, corrupt public officials and the Taliban to ensure safe passage of its supply convoys throughout the country. . .” The whole effort of nation-building in Afghanistan appears to be working at the local level. It’s creating and enriching local potentates. According to Tierney’s report, many of these local warlords have no political aspirations and didn’t even exist before America showed up. Meanwhile, Karzai and his extended family are in on the game as well.

Now the American general who’s heading the effort is tearing down the commander-in-chief. Obama could seize upon the McChrystal blunder to sack him and stake out an entirely new war in Afghanistan, which would largely dispense with ground troops and simply treat it as a shooting range, where special forces would operate and missiles would be lobbed from afar—the original Biden plan that McChrystal apparently views as wimpy. Or Obama can send McChrystal back into the field with the knowledge that he now owes everything to Obama.

Either way, Obama has reached a turning point. The surge seems to have failed before it really began. The general leading the effort is attacking his commander-in-chief. What will Obama choose? To continue to risk his presidency on Afghanistan? Or to begin the pullout even earlier than he had promised?

It took Dwight D. Eisenhower to negotiate an armistice with North Korea. But Obama doesn’t have that long, though it would be fascinating to see if any Republican candidate for the nomination in 2012 would have the cojones to call for peace in Afghanistan. The war has now dragged on for eight years and the time for decision is arriving sooner than Obama ever anticipated.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.