Obama vs the Generals?

by Michael Crowley | September 21, 2009

This morning's Washington Post's account of Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan review isn't very surprising. We already knew that McChrystal sees the Taliban as a formidable enemy and thinks the U.S. needs an ambitious coutinerinsurgency to succeed.

What is striking  is the back-and-forth, by means of background quotes, between the White House and the Pentagon in the Post's accompanying analysis piece. In the wake of the tainted Afghan elections, Barack Obama sounds increasingly wary about a major escalation in America's support for a government widely seen as illegitimate (not to mention corrupt). Important people in the White House, including Joe Biden, understand that you can't wage a winning counterinsurgency on behalf of a broadly distrusted government. (For more on Biden see my print story this week, not yet online). But the military establishment obviously wants to proceed, and is increasinly relying on press leaks to pressure the Obama team to deliver the boots. Here's the most vivid example from the Post:

But Obama's deliberative pace -- he has held only one meeting of his top national security advisers to discuss McChrystal's report so far -- is a source of growing consternation within the military. "Either accept the assessment or correct it, or let's have a discussion," one Pentagon official said. "Will you read it and tell us what you think?" Within the military, this official said, "there is a frustration. A significant frustration. A serious frustration."

And from the White House, we get this irritated retort: 

The president, one adviser said, is "taking a very deliberate, rational approach, starting at the top" of what he called a "logic chain" that begins with setting objectives, followed by determining a methodology to achieve them. Only when the first two steps are completed, he said, can the third step -- a determination of resources -- be taken.

"Who's to say we need more troops?" this official said. "McChrystal is not responsible for assessing how we're doing against al-Qaeda."

It's an awfully uncomfortable spot for Obama to be in. During the campaign he spoke often--albeit usually in the context of Iraq--about heeding the advice of his commanders on the ground. Now he's in a position where he may not want to accept it. As I wrote in my last print piece, this line of thinking helped George W. Bush screw up Iraq. That said, what the generals want is not the only consideration here. Their job is to tell Obama how the war can be won. Obama's job is to decide whether, in the context of America's myriad priorities at home and abroad, it's worth the projected cost.

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