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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The McCrystal Mess

If we learned anything from Game Change it is that above all else Barack Obama abhors drama. That is why, in retrospect, McChrystal was not long for his administration. "(McChrystal) was tired of being the victim of what he believes is a concerted effort on behalf of Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and others to undermine everything he was given 18 months to do," writes Marc Ambinder.

There were leaks, most notably advance on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Afghanistan strategy review. Last September, the WashPo ran the headline “McChrystal: More Forces Or ‘Mission Failure’.” Hmm -- wonder where that one came from, right? Afghaniskepticism reached fever pitch last week when, symbolically, the American in charge of the war in that region fainted. How meaningful!

And then there is the question of the Generals. Obama has had a problem with the military brass ab initio. Nothing major, mind you, just little intimidating strategic events meant to box in the President, pressuring him to cave in to their preferences. As the old foreign policy hand Les Gelb reminds us, sagely, "The U.S. military, officers and enlisted ranks don’t like and don’t trust Democrats and liberals. The bad feelings are mainly about values, style and constancy more than policy." And as McCrystal's aides said in the Rolling Stone hit piece, Obama himself seemed "uncomfortable and intimidated" by the military. Drama, anyone?

So it is not too much of a surprise taking all this into account that Obama has decided to double down with General Petraeus. From Washington Independent:

“This is a change in personnel,” President Obama said, announcing Gen. David Petraeus’ takeover of the Afghanistan war, “but not a change in policy.” Yes and no.

As I wrote earlier, Petraeus’ return to theater command indicates that an ambiguity in that policy has been clarified. It’s never been clear what exactly the pace and scope of troop withdrawals will be after Obama’s July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan soldiers and police taking the lead in securing the country. Obama said in his West Point speech announcing the date that “we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.” But what does that really mean? It appeared like a straddle, a line that allowed Vice President Biden to say that troop withdrawals after 2011 would be substantial and also allowed the military not to face a hard and fast deadline. In Kabul and Islamabad, that didn’t work so well, as senior officials in the Afghan and Pakistani governments reportedly disbelieved that the U.S. really did seek a long-term relationship, as Obama repeatedly said.

Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat.

Even James Fallows of The Atlantic was calling for McChrystal's ouster. "It's about civilian control of the military, respect for the chain of command, and the concepts of disrespect and insubordination," wrote Fallows. "Every officer and enlisted person in every military branch is well schooled in what those concepts mean."

Andrew Sullivan has a nice summary of some of foreign policy heavyweights thoughts on the move.

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