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Oct. 5 2009 - 11:16 am | 344 views | 2 recommendations | 8 comments

Afghanistan: Strategic photo opportunities

President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal meet aboard Air Force One on October 2 (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal meet aboard Air Force One on October 2 (Pete Souza/White House)

President Obama met with Gen. McChrystal for 25 minutes over the weekend in Denmark. A bit of political theater, as they say. I got an email, from a former U.S. military official, with some thoughts on what the photo-op meant.

Obama is foolish to have McChrystal fly to Copenhagen for a runway photo op disguised as a strategy session. Presidents do that sort of thing, but this one is such a transparent response to criticism of his diversion to pitch the Olympics for Chicago while the nation wages two conflicts that I think it can only hurt. I had hoped Obama could learn quickly on the job, but his ability to weave words into attractive fantasies and his belief that he can persuade the populace and leaders of other nations to share those fantasies insulate him from reality…McChrystal’s overt contempt for the President is a direct challenge to civilian control of the military, and it deserves a firm response. Instead, Petraeus’s soft military coup against the Obama Administration is succeeding.

I’ll let the email stand on its own.

I’m not to sure what Obama’s game plan is–if, in fact, he is truly torn over what to do in Afghanistan. If the president sends more troops now, he’ll give the appearance that he’s been bullied by one of his generals. I don’t know if that’s such a good impression to give.

I don’t know what McChrystal is up to here, either. Has he overplayed his hand? I assume he must be really worried that he’s not going to get what he wants because he’s basically running around telling everybody that the war is going to be lost if he doesn’t. If he had more confidence, wouldn’t it be wiser to shut up?

Anyway, according to the always reliable British press, Obama’s people aren’t too pleased with all the public pressure the general has been putting on Obama. It might be a bit out of line, too. The story quotes constituional law expert Bruce Ackerman: “As commanding general, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements.”

BONUS HISTORICAL PRECEDENT? I’ve been reading about the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Truman lately–this is a much smaller version of that.  The photo op thing, in particular, reminded me of MacArthur’s anger at Truman for a meeting they had in Hawaii right after Inchon in 1950. Truman called MacArthur to the meeting; Mac didn’t want to go, and he had refused to come to DC. MacArthur thought Truman was wasting his time, just playing politics–making the great general fly from Japan for a picture in the press to help in the upcoming elections! MacArthur was right about the politics parts, but Truman was also correct to eventually put the general in his place.


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  1. collapse expand

    Frankly I find the email a tad absurd and I’m guessing written by a McCain voter. None the less anyone taking the time to really exam what is going on will see that McChrystal’s days in Afghanistan are probably coming to an end. He got 21,000 and things have gone from bad to worse, not exactly confidence inspiring. Perhaps the author of the email didn’t see the NSA on CNN yesterday, the WH is not pleased with McChrystal MacArthur like stunt, not pleased at all.

    Also if “Petraeus’s soft military coup” (seriously who the hell talks in terms of coups, soft or otherwise?) was the success the author claims we have to ask, so why aren’t the troops on their way?

  2. collapse expand

    A lot of people are playing up Truman-MacArthur. I personally have no idea what’s going to happen here, but it seems like the right is using mcchrystal as a proxy while everyone else is coalescing behind general jones, who seems to be defending the idea of thinking things out.

  3. collapse expand

    Mr. Hastings,

    Gen. McChrystal is at least half right, the goal of defeating the tribal militias and establishing Kabul as both the de facto and de jure capital of a unified Afghanistan cannot be accomplished with the existing troop levels (I suspect that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are much more peripheral to the fighting in Afghanistan). What is questionable is whether sending 100,000 more troops will accomplish this goal any better than the number of troops in Afghanistan now. Clearly Gen. McChrystal believes that they can. President Obama is not so sure. The general is clearly trying to pressure the president into agreeing to a troop increase.

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    About Me

    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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