Obama vs. the Generals
I’m vacationing in Ixtapa, Mexico this week and have been mostly ignoring the news since Friday afternoon. Via memeorandum, I see that the underground fight between General Stanley McChrystal and the Obama administration that I blogged on last week has kicked into high gear and that a new player has joined the fight: General David Petraeus.
Alex Spillious of The Telegraph reports under the headline “Barack Obama furious at General Stanley McChrystal speech on Afghanistan” that,
According to sources close to the administration, Gen McChrystal shocked and angered presidential advisers with the bluntness of a speech given in London last week. The next day he was summoned to an awkward 25-minute face-to-face meeting on board Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president had arrived to tout Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.
Gen James Jones, the national security adviser, yesterday did little to allay the impression the meeting had been awkward. Asked if the president had told the general to tone down his remarks, he told CBS: “I wasn’t there so I can’t answer that question. But it was an opportunity for them to get to know each other a little bit better. I am sure they exchanged direct views.”
An adviser to the administration said: “People aren’t sure whether McChrystal is being naÃ¯ve or an upstart. To my mind he doesn’t seem ready for this Washington hard-ball and is just speaking his mind too plainly.”
Some commentators regarded the general’s London comments as verging on insubordination. Bruce Ackerman, an expert on constitutional law at Yale University, said in the Washington Post: “As commanding general, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements.” He added that it was highly unusual for a senior military officer to “pressure the president in public to adopt his strategy”.
A piece by Scott Wilson in today’s WaPo continues that theme under the more benign headline “McChrystal Faulted On Troop Statements.”
National security adviser James L. Jones suggested Sunday that the public campaign being conducted by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan on behalf of his war strategy is complicating the internal White House review underway, saying that “it is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”
A U.S. military official said Sunday that Pentagon leaders were alerted that McChrystal was speaking in London and were not concerned by his remarks. “General McChrystal was simply speaking to the situation on the ground as he sees it and how he would execute the president’s current strategy — the mission he has been assigned,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive internal matter. “He was not pushing his views or in any way trying to influence policy.”
As I noted last week, I both think McChrystal has exactly that defense — he’s just defending his mission as it was outlined to him when he took the job a mere three months ago and yet went too far — intentionally putting his commander-in-chief in an awkward position knowing damned well that the policy is under serious rethinking within the administration.
This gets even more complicated, as Elisabeth Bumiller reports in a NYT story titled “Voice of Bush’s Pentagon Becomes Harder to Hear,” as Petraeus — the uber political general of this era — is a factor in this dispute.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the face of the Iraq troop surge and a favorite of former President George W. Bush, spoke up or was called upon by President Obama “several times” during the big Afghanistan strategy session in the Situation Room last week, one participant says, and will be back for two more meetings this week.
But the general’s closest associates say that underneath the surface of good relations, the celebrity commander faces a new reality in Mr. Obama’s White House: He is still at the table, but in a very different seat. No longer does the man who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have one of the biggest voices at National Security Council meetings, as he did when Mr. Bush gave him 20 minutes during hourlong weekly sessions to present his views in live video feeds from Baghdad. No longer is the general, with the Capitol Hill contacts and web of e-mail relationships throughout Washington’s journalism establishment, testifying in media explosions before Congress, as he did in September 2007, when he gave 34 interviews in three days.
The change has fueled speculation in Washington about whether General Petraeus might seek the presidency in 2012. His advisers say that it is absurd — but in immediate policy terms, it means there is one less visible advocate for the military in the administration’s debate over whether to send up to 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
How much General Petraeus’s muted voice will affect Mr. Obama’s decision on the war is unclear, but people close to him say that stifling himself in public could give him greater credibility to influence the debate from within. Others say that his biggest influence may simply be as part of a team of military advisers, including General McChrystal and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The men are united in what they see as the need to build up the American effort in Afghanistan, although General Petraeus, who works closely with General McChrystal, said last week that he had not yet endorsed General McChrystal’s request for more troops.
Back when an unpopular President Bush was hanging his defense on the war on the prestige of his top general in the theater, I warned of Petraeus Fetishism. While I continue to respect and admire the general, it violates every tenet of our system to have the generals making strategic policy decisions. The president and his team should make those calls — preferably with the input of the Joint Chiefs and appropriate theater commanders, who can advise them on logistics, timetables, and matters of feasibility — and the generals should then be left alone to run the tactical level operations within the broad parameters of the assigned political objectives. And that’s just as true in periods, like the current one, when the president is someone for whom I did not vote.