McChrystal: What's Going Down in Washington and Afghanistan?

06/23/2010 06:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

General Petraeus' appointment as commander in Afghanistan ensures the venture's 'success.' For now we have in charge the man whose fabrication of a fictive 'success' in Iraq demonstrated impressive skills at creating virtual realities. He and the President are a formidable team of dissemblers who should be able to handle anything short of a total collapse -- an eventuality precluded by the size of our forces and the political subtlety of the Afghan parties who are skillfully maneuvering around us. Karzai, the Taliban and the Pakistani ISI, among others, will work their will as adroitly as did Maliki in Iraq who turned the tables on Petraeus during the SOFA negotiations. The Iraqi did it so deftly that the United States was sidelined before Petraeus or Washington was aware that they were off the playing field. Something similar will happen in Afghanistan.

There is no need, though, for the White House to be worried. Just as Petraeus emerged from the Iraq debacle wearing laurel leaves, so he and Obama probably will succeed in confecting some mythical story that also will be swallowed by the American people. What a show it will be to watch these two accomplished prestidigitators matched in 2012 as ministries get blown up in Kabul, warlords revel and heroin users worldwide toast the USA.

The passions generated by a Washington scandal like the McChrystal affair fix our attention so completely on personalities and their behavior that it is easy to overlook the insights that they may convey about the thinking of our leaders and how they approach momentous issues. So it is with this latest scandal. Here is a short list of things that we have learned or can infer from the McChrystal quotes in Rolling Stone and subsequent commentaries by persons who have observed the administration in action.

Obama's handling of Afghanistan is a prime case of how not to make and execute foreign policy -- especially one that involves a large military commitment. It is undisciplined; it encourages personal rivalries; it leaves obscure lines of command and direction; there is only the most tenuous connection between analysis, policy decision and execution; and it never brings into sharp focus the core issues. It substitutes restless motion for action -- mental as well as physical. In addition, there is no evidence of a monitoring mechanism. Let us recall the 50 performance measures that the White House was going to apply in order to assess progress and make adjustments. Their disappearance suggests that it was a meaningless cosmetic replaced by nothing more orderly and cogent.

Obama is described as 'intimidated' by his senior generals. This rings true because it conforms to what we know about how he deals with rogue barons of the intelligence agencies, the barons of Wall Street, the barons of the health industry and (until last week) the barons of the oil industry. Remember this was a President whose critical breakfast meeting at the White House with seven leading bankers was marked by the absence of Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs who called during the meeting to say he couldn't make it due to 'fog in the channel'. Obama expressed his appreciation for the courtesy of a call. We don't know if he offered to reimburse Blankfein for the cost of making it.

A 'disengaged' Obama. How is it possible for a super energetic man whose 150 IQ is often on display in parsing the recondite permutations of technical issues fail to master the particulars of Afghanistan? Well, IQ is no substitute for insight and interpretive wisdom. Remember, too, that Obama expressed 'shock' a few months ago when the story broke that the Afghan Army in which we'd invested $26 billion was a shambles -- despite months in endless meetings with his 'team.' Apparently, his concentrated attention was directed elsewhere than on "the war we have to win."

McChrystal is correct that there is a disconnect between the mission and the resources provided. Logically, you cannot get there from here -- even if you judge the goal itself as realistic and the effort not counterproductive. The hocus-pocus of a surge with a deadline to leave appended to it was political driven nonsense from the outset.

Surmise: McChrystal is more honest in his assessments than either Obama or Petraeus. The President is accustomed to throw the mantle of success over failure through glib talk and spin. Petraeus, the most political general we have had since McClellan, obviously recognized all this since he was the master spinner of the Iraq surge and its main beneficiary.

Surmise: McChrystal may have been led to believe by Petraeus that once the surge offensive got underway Obama would have to accept an expansion of the forces and a time extension. Petraeus may have believed it and, in that, may still be correct. The difference is that he and his staff have kept their mouths shut.

The import of these events is great, yet there is no element of surprise. This is just confirmation of what we already should have understood about the situation and the personalities. Obama is a weakling who lacks political and intellectual courage. Audacity or ambition is not courage. He has no convictions about anything and he tacks to the political zephyrs Obama defers to any strong, willful establishment leader. He's been led by the nose by Petraeus who is the orchestrator of the so-called Afghan 'surge - and now its overlord.'
McChrystal was little more than Petraeus' emanation. A warrior monk by temperament, he was unsuited for the job. He is not a hearts and minds leader: rather, he is the born leader of a maverick wolf pack. We can suppose that he was still seen by Petraeus as the best instrument available. Obama, his administration and the country are in utter disarray about Afghanistan -- strategically, diplomatically and politically. Their public declarations have never been coherent from the first, aims were left fuzzy and means confused. Ulrimately, it's the President's fault. It's time to bring a halt to all the fantasy island discourse in and around Washingon as to what's achievable in Afghanistan. Enough's enough.

One wider implication. Obama doesn't have the stomach for making tough decisions or undertaking risky actions with implications that he can't spin. He'll never muster the courage to attack Iran. He could embolden the Israelis to do so.

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