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Jewish World Review
Oct. 14, 2009
/ 26 Tishrei 5770
Who's at the Helm?
The course of American policy in Afghanistan had been clear from the first of this administration. This president made it clear even before he was president -- when he was on the campaign trail. So it was simple enough for the commander in the field to sum it up when asked to speak at an international conference the other day:
Afghanistan was no longer going to be the forgotten war. On the contrary, it was a "war of necessity," and "the central front on terror." This country would pursue a "comprehensive new strategy ... to reverse the Taliban's gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." Because the "return in force of al-Qaida terrorists who would accompany the core Taliban leadership would cast Afghanistan under the shadow of perpetual violence."
All of those quotes are not from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new general whom a new president chose to carry out a new strategy in Afghanistan. Those are the words of Barack Obama himself, the commander-in-chief. So when General McChrystal stopped in London to deliver a speech about the war -- a speech vetted and approved by the brass in the Pentagon weeks before -- he had only to echo the president's own policy.
Uh oh. How was the general to know that's now the old policy? Indeed, that there is no longer a policy at all. For since the general last got his orders, the president has gone wobbly. You have to be nimble to keep up with this president even when he's just dawdling -- excuse me, re-evaluating. Let's just say he's taking a furlough day, maybe a furlough year by the time he's through backing-and-forthing.
Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric, his strong statements about winning the war in Afghanistan just after he was inaugurated in January and repeated and reinforced in March and July and again in August . . . all those pronouncements, as Richard Nixon might say, are no longer operative. Everything's been put on hold, maybe indefinitely.
What? What about this president's warnings that, unless Afghanistan can be stabilized, al-Qaida would return from its redoubts just across the border in Pakistan? What about his prophecies that, unless the war was won in Afghanistan, the Taliban would once again offer a refuge and base of operations for terrorists of all Islamic brands?
Remember all that? Well, forget it. It's all going down the memory hole. A re-re-review of policy is being conducted, doubtless preparatory to the next review.
Never mind that Gen. McChrystal, at the president's command, had just submitted a "comprehensive" review of how the war in Afghanistan is going, namely badly. How was the general to know that the presidential policy he was defending in London is no longer presidential policy? There's always one guy in every outfit who never gets the word.
In the fight for influence among the president's 1,001 closest advisers, handlers, kibitzers, staff officers and armchair generals in Washington, the long knives are out. So the general commanding of American and allied forces in the field was accused of pulling a MacArthur -- a reference to Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous confrontation with his commander-in-chief, Harry Truman, over what strategy to follow in Korea, another forgotten war.
In 1951, it had been the perfect match-up: the American Caesar vs. The Man from Independence, military versus civil authority, autocratic Virginian against feisty Missourian. High drama. Who cares if the McChrystal-Obama parallel is, to put it mildly, inexact? The show's the thing. All that empty airtime on television and radio, not to mention the infinite space available on electronic blogs, has to be filled, you know. So let's re-run the MacArthur-Truman tapes.
This handy historical parallel, however it might have to be strained, has been rolled out by our never very original intelligentsia and applied to this mix-up between a new general who had his orders, or thought he had them, and a wavering young president suddenly confronted with what his once brave words might cost in terms of American lives and treasure. Not to mention the midterm elections.
General McChrystal was said to feel "just terrible" about the misunderstanding -- a most un-MacArthur expression of humility -- but nevertheless he would be squeezed into the MacArthur mold. Charges of insubordination would be bruited about. It makes for a good story. And the story's the thing.
Meanwhile, a new military doctrine for Afghanistan, or at least a military rationalization, is being hammered out under the experienced leadership of General Joe Biden, code-name Silly Man. The vague new direction for American policy: less counter-insurgency, more Rumsfeldian war-on-the-cheap. It didn't work in Iraq but it'll have to do in Afghanistan, at least till Kabul falls to a resurgent Taliban. Then it can all be blamed on the Republicans, or maybe Gen. McChrystal. You can never have enough fall guys.
But what about this president's own early, incautious McCain-like statements January through August? Never happened. They will be forgotten. That's an order. They must not be remembered, let alone repeated. The president might be accused of insubordination to himself.
What fun. Disorganization at the top always is. But only to watch, preferably from afar, safely removed from actual combat. The show isn't as much fun if you're a trooper somewhere in back-of-beyond Nuristan while all Afghanistan is turning into Chaostan.
And so the great ship of state sails on, though no one seems sure of its course any longer. Down below, the grunts sweat and shovel and fight and die. In the wardrooms, the mid-level officers and bureaucrats and visiting correspondents plot to run the show themselves. The bridge is full of VIPs coming and going and offering counsel, intrigue and flattery. And yet, for all the activity there, it seems perfectly empty. No one is at the helm.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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