Commentary: Obama is at war with his general
SAN DIEGO -- You can place a top general in Afghanistan, but you can't tell him what to think.
Call that one of President Obama's first lessons as commander in chief. The person who took the president to school on that point was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was named by Obama just a few months ago as the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan.
You would think the president would put a high value on what his commander has to say. But apparently in Obamaland the wisdom of the messenger is directly proportional to whether the White House wants to heed the message. And there seems to be a lot that McChrystal wants to say that the White House isn't ready to hear.
According to McClatchy Newspapers, military officials in Kabul and Washington say that the White House and Pentagon over the last six weeks had issued directives telling McChrystal not to submit a specific request for an increase in U.S. forces; the general is said to want as many as 45,000 additional troops. The administration isn't ready to consider that option. Instead, McChrystal sent his 66-page report last month to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As everyone knows by now, the general concluded that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan "will likely result in failure" without a new strategy and an urgent infusion of troops. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, both backed that assessment.
Obama's own arguments about what to do in Afghanistan have not been very persuasive. Not even to himself. In March, he declared that the United States would prevent the return of the Taliban and "enhance the military, governance and economic capacity" of Afghanistan in order to help prevent al-Qaeda from returning and once again using the country as a launching pad for further attacks against the United States. But now the president seems to be backing off from his own hard line. On CBS' "Face the Nation," Obama said that "the only reason I send a single young man or woman in uniform anywhere in the world is because I think it's necessary to keep us safe. ... We're not gonna put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops (to Afghanistan) we're automatically going to make Americans safe."
So what's changed? The administration has been floating this line that with the integrity of the recent Afghan election in doubt, we can't be sure we have a reliable partner in Kabul.
Yet what seems to be a reversal on Afghanistan has little to do with a foreign election. This is about politics here at home.
Polls show that Americans have lost their appetite for continuing the fight in Afghanistan. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll found only 39 percent of Americans favor the war -- an all-time low -- and 58 percent are opposed to it.
And then there's the health care debate, which has worsened the relationship between Congress and the White House and stirred up a sizable amount of public discontent toward the administration. This has made it difficult for the White House to convince Americans to sign on to anything.
So no matter what Obama said in the spring, it is no surprise that many White House advisers including Vice President Joe Biden are looking for a way to leave Afghanistan. That would be a grave mistake, and an abdication of Obama's duty to keep Americans safe by preventing more acts of terrorism. More than a clumsy flip-flop on policy, it would also be an outright betrayal of the military leaders that he put in charge of the operation in Afghanistan.
According to McClatchy, some members of McChrystal's staff said they don't understand why Obama called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" but still hasn't given them the resources they need to do what is necessary.
Good question. We should all be asking the same thing.
And at least three officers at the Pentagon and in Kabul told McClatchy that McChrystal would probably resign rather than co-sign a failed policy that puts U.S. troops in danger.
McChrystal is in a tough spot. When he isn't fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has to combat ignorance and cowardice on the Potomac. The general might have to end his career over this. But he shouldn't back down -- not when strong leaders are in such short supply.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.