It is not too late for President Barack Obama to follow the example of Harry Truman, who fired the famous Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951 for insubordination. Then, as now, the stakes were high. Then it was Korea; now it is Afghanistan.
In my view, Obama should fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
In that showdown nearly six decades ago, President Truman and his advisers were preparing to engage North Korea and China in peace negotiations when MacArthur, commander of the U.N. forces in Korea, issued an unauthorized statement containing a veiled threat to expand the war into China.
MacArthur was playing a back-channel game to win the support of like-minded Republican congressmen to expand the war, but Truman faced him down. With the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Secretaries of State and Defense, Truman rose to the occasion and fired the distinguished “old soldier.”
Today, Gen. McChrystal is conducting a subtler but equally insubordinate campaign for a wider war in Afghanistan, with the backing of CENTCOM commander David Petraeus.
It is clear in retrospect that President Obama either should not have appointed McChrystal or should have at least taken the telegenic general to the woodshed regarding leaks of his troop recommendations, rather than inviting him to confer quietly on Air Force One seven weeks ago.
McChrystal’s continuing defiance shines through gratuitous remarks by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at a NATO meeting on Nov. 17 in Edinburgh. Siding with McChrystal, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen in the debate over sending more forces to Afghanistan, Rasmussen announced that NATO will soon dispatch “substantially more forces.”
Rasmussen promised “new momentum” behind the military campaign, adding, “I’m confident it will be a counter-insurgency approach,” which is what McChrystal says he needs an additional 40,000 American troops to undertake.
But here’s the thing: Rasmussen’s past behavior makes it abundantly clear that, on such matters, the only tea leaves he reads are the ones given him by those he concludes wield the real power in Washington. Besides, he was one of George W. Bush’s best buddies in the days of “shock and awe.”
As Denmark’s Prime Minister (2001-2009), Rasmussen was one of Bush’s most reliable sycophants — particularly when it came to the war on Iraq. Although amply warned by Danish intelligence officers of the deceptive nature of the U.S. case for war, he shunned them and outdid himself in cheerleading for war.
For example, while Danish intelligence professionals told then-Prime Minister Rasmussen there was very little evidence that Iraq had "weapons of mass destruction," he decided to take his cue from the neo-cons in Washington. On the day before the invasion of Iraq, he told the Danish Parliament:
"Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. This is not something we just believe. We know."
Thus, Rasmussen has a long record of bowing before what he perceives are the power centers in Washington. And his perception now? Apparently it is that the real power ain’t in the White House this time; it’s in the Pentagon.
As Rasmussen now as NATO Secretary General was announcing what he called the plan to send “substantially more forces” to Afghanistan, President Obama, in Beijing struck a defensive tone in telling CBS News, “I think that Gen. McChrystal shares the same goal I do.”
Wait a second; he thinks?
Granted the President has a lot on his plate, and he is to be applauded for the deliberate pace he has set on making big decisions about Afghanistan, but he is projecting the image of Mr. Milquetoast — a highly educated, well-spoken wuss on many key issues.
This is not only damaging with foreign adversaries; it gives the U.S. military and his domestic political rivals the idea that he is a slow-moving lightweight, who can either be pushed around or easily evaded when it comes to issues on which they are deeply engaged — like Afghanistan.
Even with respect to Rasmussen himself, Obama was warned about the former Danish prime minister’s subservience to Bush and the neo-cons, and yet did nothing to prevent Rasmussen from becoming NATO Secretary General.
Obama also is caving in on the issue of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian areas. In a plaintive, powerless tone, Obama told Fox News on Nov. 18: “Well, there is no doubt that I haven’t been able to stop the settlements.”
As for his domestic priority of health care, he has not been heard to protest as the draft legislation falls far short of his original objectives.
In the same acquiescent tone, Obama’s senior policy people are telling the Washington Post that U.S. officials, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down, have “turned on the charm” with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
According to the Post, the administration has decided that its tough approach to Karzai was counterproductive, “fueling stress and anger in a beleaguered, conspiracy-minded leader whom the U.S. government needs as a partner.”
The Post article says that criticism of the earlier approach is most pronounced among senior U.S. military leaders, who complain about the failure of the State Department to “fix” Karzai’s government.
Sensitive to that kind of charge, Secretary Clinton reportedly is said to have urged Karzai “to use merit, not cronyism, as a criteria (sic) for filling cabinet posts,” according to the Post. That should take care of that, I suppose.
This may be part of what the Post’s hard-right columnist, Michael Gerson had in mind in his Friday op-ed, entitled “Obama the Undecider,” as he criticized “a dysfunctional Afghan decision-making process.”
More to the point, Gerson reported that Gen. McChrystal is feeling “stabbed in the back” by the leak of two classified messages from U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry arguing against troop increases.
Gerson, actually, makes a valid point in summing up Obama’s dilemma. Depending on his ultimate decision, the President “will be vulnerable to charges of buckling to military pressure or disregarding the advice of his commanders.”
The sooner President Obama accepts that there is no win-win solution to his dilemma, the better.
Right-wing pressure, including from Robert Gates, the defense secretary Obama kept on from the Bush administration, will not abate. At a press conference on Thursday, Gates, who reportedly favors sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, made it seem like a foregone conclusion that the President will opt (has opted) to escalate.
“I anticipate that as soon as the President makes his decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that,” Gates said.
Adm. Mullen was even more specific:
“We think we have a way ahead. But as the secretary said, it's not going to be five brigades – it's not going to be a brigade a month because of the infrastructure piece – the ability to receive it, literally, in Afghanistan.”
Most pundits already had concluded, even before the Gates-Mullen remarks, that the basic decision to send more troops was a done deal, that the only question remaining is how many can be sent and how fast, and that Obama’s continuing consultation with senior advisers is some kind of charade. They may be right. I’m not completely sure.
However, iIf the President is, as he claimed this week, “angrier than Bob Gates about the leaks” regarding Afghanistan deliberations, I would think his anger would extend to the feeding of talking points to the likes of Rasmussen.
There remains a chance, I believe, that Obama may decide to stop letting himself be pushed around.
However, if Obama does not put a decisive end to McChrystal’s politicking, and does not remonstrate with Rasmussen, we can conclude that the pundits are right. If so, and if the troop increase is substantial, disaster looms both on the battlefields of Afghanistan and in the power corridors of Washington.
The future expectation would be that when the chips are down, Obama won’t be a Truman or a Kennedy, both of whom had the guts to face down the Pentagon by rebuffing military demands for wider wars.
It would be hard to write a Profile in Courage for one who bowed as low to his opinionated — but myopic — generals, as he did, physically, to the Japanese emperor, de rigueur, last Saturday.
The “transfer cases” (the Washington Post’s euphemism for coffins carrying soldiers’ remains) would continue to arrive in Delaware. By expanding the war in Afghanistan, Obama would have let down those soldiers and their grieving families, though he might have earned himself a few head-patting op-eds.
Another bitter irony would be that the Republicans would continue to batter Obama whatever he does regarding a war that their erstwhile hero George W. Bush started but couldn’t finish.
Already, demoralized Democrats are looking forward fearfully to Election 2010 and then to Election 2012 when the Republicans – maybe with a Petraeus-Gates ticket – will cite Obama’s indecision as a key reason he doesn’t deserve a second term.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. He is a 27-year veteran analyst of the CIA and co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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This story was published on November 22, 2009.