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Gen. McChrystal Goes MacArthur on Obama's Afghanistan

By October 1, 2009

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MacArthur Redux: President Obama may need to remind Gen. Stanley McChrystal who's commander in chief. (White House Photo by Pete Souza via Getty Images)

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has plenty of time for interviews, selling his imminent request for p to 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan. He gave one to CBS's "60 Minutes" (it's airing Sunday). He gave one to The New York Times last week. He gave one to Le Figaro, the center-right French daily from Kabul, on Wednesday. He gave one, plus lavish access to closed-door briefings, to Newsweek (the magazine returned the favor by calling him, in a purebred contradiction, "a purebred warrior" and "a kind of Zen warrior"--in the same paragraph). He even had time to fly to London and deliver a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies today.

So why is McChrystal refusing to appear before Congress--which not so incidentally pays his and his troops' salaries, procures his weapons and answers, as McChrystal doesn't have to, to families whose sons and daughters are dying in Afghanistan under McChrystal's command?

"An array of powerful lawmakers from both parties," The Wall Street Journal reported, "including the Democratic Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, want Gen. Stanley McChrystal to testify about the challenges confronting the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and his plan for beating back the resurgent Taliban."

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is also among those lawmakers, though McConnell is salting his request with a disturbing motive--to make Obama and McChrystal look like opposite poles. "The President must soon explain to the American people his reasons either for accepting the McChrystal Plan or, if he chooses an alternative, explain why he believes the alternative is better," McConnell said on the Senate floor last week.

McChrystal himself, with his chat-and-snub strategy of outflanking Obama through the press while rebuffing Congress, appears to be choreographing his own political pressure tactics. The last thing the Afghan debacle needs is a neo-MacArthur presuming more than his command warrants.

There's nothing wrong with generals speaking their mind. More generals ought to have done so (without repercussions) in the previous eight years. But McChrystal isn't speaking his mind. He's angling at a president weakening in the polls for political points in Washington that McChrystal can then cash in for more troops, lucre and, inevitably, blood in Afghanistan.

McChrystal's own assessments of the situation there are as contradictory as Newsweek's characterization of his warrior shades. He concedes, in that 66-page memo to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the war can't be won by military means alone, that the civilian population must be won over, that even winning the population over may be uncertain, given how long the war has lasted and how late the United States is at least trying to change strategy. And he diagnoses the situation well enough: "We need to connect with people, yet physical or linguistic barriers make it increasingly difficult. Ultimately, our security comes from the people. We cannot build enough walls to protect ourselves if the people do not." But military hardware has tended to be the mortar that builds those walls. It doesn't destroy them. Now McChrystal is asking for more, while using some of that empty Zen language: "We must, then, operate and think in a fundamentally new way."

The fundamental change that may work best is the one he doesn't want to hear about, the one he refuses to consider, as he made clear in his flirtingly rogue address today: Taking a page from Gorbachev's insights in the late 1980s and scaling back deployments, not escalating them. Instead, he's waging the war of perception that he says the Taliban are winning, but waging it against Obama.

"This is not like a football game with points on a scoreboard," he told his London audience, "it is more like a political debate, after which both sides announce that they won." McChrystal was ostensibly referring to the war in Afghanistan. He might as well have been referring to his war with Obama.

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