Obama -- Really the Afghanistan "Decider"?

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

There is something rotten in the current state of Washington's Afghan policy making. The White House, we are told, is in the midst of an intense review of our strategy with nothing having been decided. Yet the NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday gave their seal of approval to the 'surge' being actively promoted by General Stanley McChrystal. The General made a long presentation of his plan behind closed doors.

Secretary Gates was in attendance but afterwords claimed that he was there "in a listening mode." Supposedly, then, the United States as leader of the Alliance and in charge of the AFPAK campaign sat mute while a judgment was made that preempts a decision in Washington that in principle is weeks off.

A confused American public, and an ever credulous press, are buying this fairy tale. Obviously, simple logic tells us that the story doesn't hold together. Either Obama already has made up his mind to back at least the essence of the McChrystal plan or he is being boxed in a corner by his general who acts as if he is the commander in chief with Gates' tacit support. Both interpretations are dismaying.

A president who misleads the American people on a question of war and peace is continuing his predecessor's practice of deception that brought us to ruin in Iraq -- a practice that Obama swore oaths to reverse. The alternative is just as harrowing: the Pentagon is preempting presidential prerogatives. Sad to say, neither should be a complete surprise given the White House's record of having abandoned its much ballyhooed dedication to transparency while letting itself be pushed around by everyone from Goldman Sachs to Max Baucus to Bibi Netanyahu.

The unrelenting McChrystal lobbying campaign is undeniable evidence that something is seriously amiss. First he leaked a copy of his report so as to generate political pressure on Obama. He followed with a public address in London wherein he made the case for his escalation while disparaging alternatives. The White House reined him in at that point -- or so we are told. Yet the indefatigable general was back at it within a week.

McChrsytal curtly rejected Vice President Biden's idea of scaling back nation-building objectives while concentrating on al-Qaeda and Taliban military assets -- itself a plan that leaves in place all the key premises of present thinking. Taking that "shortsighted strategy" would lead to "Chaos-istan," he pronounced.

There is no precedent to this kind of conduct by a commanding officer in the American military -- at least not since MacArthur went rogue in Korea and was sacked by Harry Truman. It is a worrying comparison both because of the fateful matters at hand in the two instances and the simple truth that one cannot imagine Obama mustering the strength of character to do anything remotely as brave.

There remains, though, the competing interpretation of these goings-on. The White House may be giving McChrystal his head so as to cast itself as the embodiment of prudence when it announces only a modest expansion of American forces. That choice could then be presented as the considered judgment of a strong president who will not bend to pressure whether from his generals or his 'left wing friends' as he calls the people who elected him.

This is the sort of clever tactic that has the fingerprints of White House fixer Rahm Emanuel all over it. It obviously appeals to Obama who has followed a similar tack on financial 'reform,' health care 'reform' and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The tactic's failure to produce tangible success in all those cases has not shaken the president's confidence in playing that game. A fluid definition of goals, and therefore success, eliminates any critical point of reference. Devaluing of the American people's trust in their leader eliminates an obligation to honest public discourse.

Obama also seems unmoved by the consequences of leaving the impression that he can be bullied by the Pentagon. That impression of him in the minds both of his generals and other governments is a distinct and dangerous liability.