Obama Surrenders to General's Political Surge

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

No more calls. We have a winner. All hail General Stanley McChrystal, who has won his war for 30,000 more troops to be deployed to a country whose government is so rotten and corrupt many of its citizens prefer the Taliban.

Marching triumphantly to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, then giving network interviews and long sit-downs with Charlie Rose and Christiane Amanpour, McChrystal showed himself, as much as anyone, to be the decider of our foreign policy. The U.S. war on terror will now be centered in Afghanistan.

Don't mistake this for a surge. It's an escalation. In a blizzard of clarifying statements from Obama administration officials, the purported July 2011 drawdown date for the reinforcements was rendered inoperable almost as soon as it was uttered.

Common sense says the deadline was a feint to calm Democrats. You don't win the hearts and minds of Afghanis, as McChrystal wants to do, in a lifetime, much less 18 months, or train an army of mostly illiterate, tribal men in a country that exhausted the superior army of the Soviet Union before the U.S. gave it a go.

Of all the issues Obama didn't want on his desk, Afghanistan was the hardest, even without the military hemming him in. McChrystal fought in memos, fought through leaks, fought in the trenches, as much with political arts as martial ones.

For a while it looked like McChrystal was being outmaneuvered by Vice President Joe Biden. Biden argued that Afghanistan had changed from a just war to a senseless one because al-Qaeda has mostly moved elsewhere, that the citizenry rightfully hated the corrupt and dysfunctional government, and that drones and special forces on the Afghan border with Pakistan could do the job.

Fighting Back

McChrystal and anonymous "military officials" fought back. Dramatic excerpts from a classified memo to the president appeared. "Inadequate resources," the memo from McChrystal warned, "will likely result in failure."

His warning echoed the frequent predictions of doom from former Vice President Dick Cheney, who insisted that Obama's failure to grasp that we are "at war" and his "dithering" invited renewed terrorist activity.

When General Douglas MacArthur disagreed with stopping at the 38th parallel in North Korea, President Harry Truman fired him. If MacArthur had had McChrystal's savvy, he might have gotten his way.

Generals used to be unsuited for prime time: too gruff, too candid, too unpolished. Now most are tanned, rested and ready for their closeup, with P.R. as good as Tiger Woods before the recent troubles.

Flatter Me

In October, McChrystal let a reporter accompany him to Helmand province and got a long, flattering profile in the New York Times magazine out of it. On the cover, a Patton-like photo. Inside, the story of a man who "pushes himself mercilessly, sleeping four or five hours a night" and subsists on one meal a day. Jumping from a whirring Black Hawk helicopter, he paraded through an outpost in the south without helmet or flak jacket to show how more troops on the ground can calm the populace. That's a lot of ramrod-straight bravado to match.

Democratic presidents are fearful of reviving the charge that they are soft on national security and defer to the military brass. As Representative John Conyers, a Democrat highly critical of Obama's build-up, put it, "Calling in generals and admirals to discuss troop strength is like me taking my youngest to McDonald's to ask if he likes French fries."

Obama's Ambivalence

Obama's nationally televised speech revealed his ambivalence by granting McChrystal what he wanted -- 30,000 U.S. troops, plus maybe 10,000 from a coalition of the willing -- but only for a little while.

Testifying in Congress, McChrystal hedged that double message. He placated restive Democrats with the suggestion that the deployment would end on a date certain, while signaling to Republicans that Obama's commitment was more open-ended.

Meantime, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai was telling reporters that it would be at least five years before Afghan security forces would be capable of standing up so we could stand down. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a surprise trip to the region, said it could be as long as four years before any of the surge troops come home.

In a blunder, Gates said what not even the most hawkish say: "We are in this thing to win." Send Gates -- never tan, rarely quotable -- to the same media training that's made generals the envy of Britney Spears.

Civilian Leadership

Generals should have their say, but not necessarily their way, in the Oval Office. It's all too easy to lose sight of the constitutional principle that military commanders are subordinate to civilian leadership when a confident general with good press says we will all be dead if we don't listen to him.

During his deliberations, Obama was cast as indecisive and overly sensitive to politics, while McChrystal was seen as resolute, concerned not about his popularity but about his country. Less prominent were the facts that during McCrystal's command, Osama bin Laden has remained at large and the lie was perpetrated that Corporal Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire, not accidental friendly fire.

It would be heartening to think Obama did the hard thing on Afghanistan not because his hand-picked general intimidated him, but because he became convinced that catastrophe would ensue if he failed to send more American troops.

Margaret Carlson, author of Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Originally published at Bloomberg.com.

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