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The Obama-McChrystal Showdown

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The fate of the top United States military commander and the chief architect of American policy in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is in the balance. General McChrystal has been summoned to explain to President Obama on Wednesday (June 23) a series of comments made by him and his aides to the Rolling Stone magazine. McChrystal’s remarks this time have gone beyond anything the rebellious general has said in public before, rocking America’s political and military establishments. Despite a prompt and profuse apology for displaying what General McChrystal admitted was poor judgment and a lack of integrity, considerable uncertainty hangs over his future.

In the article, one of McChrystal’s aides is quoted as saying the general was disappointed at his first meeting with an ‘unprepared’ Obama, his commander-in-chief. The aide continues, “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his ****ing war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed.”

As part of McChrystal’s strategy for ‘winning’ the Afghan war, President Obama agreed last year to deploy more than 30000 additional troops in the country. But he set a deadline of July 2011 for beginning a withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan – a political necessity before of the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. McChrystal’s strategy team regards the deadline as ‘arbitrary’.

McChrystal says in the article that he felt ‘betrayed’ by his former boss, retired General Karl Eikenberry, the current U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. An Obama loyalist, Eikenberry was appointed to the job soon after his retirement from the military. He provided a counter to McChrystal, a hawkish warrior for whom political solutions come way behind overwhelming military power.

General McChrystal has nothing but contempt for President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. An email from Holbrooke prompts McChrystal to respond, “Oh not another email from Holbrooke.” The general says he doesn’t even want to open it.

“The boss [General McChrystal] says he [Holbrooke] is like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.” Then McChrystal’s staff mocks Vice President Joe Biden, seen as heading the list of people against the general. And President Obama’s national security adviser Jim Jones is described as a clown ‘stuck in 1985’.

Two members of the Obama administration regarded as supporters in the McChrystal camp are Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was retained from the Bush administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama’s main opponent for the Democratic nomination before the 2008 presidential election.

Eighteen months after inauguration, this latest McChrystal episode illustrates something that is at the root of problems within the Obama administration. His decision to form what in effect is a coalition administration may have been well intentioned. He wanted to see potential opponents inside the tent, rather than outside. He thought he would hear differing points of view, then decide in his capacity as the nation’s commander-in-chief. And everybody will obey, because the U.S. president can overrule his entire cabinet where decision-making by majority vote does not happen. It was to be his way of achieving consensus and smooth running of the administration after eight years of extreme turbulence.

The experience of the last eighteen months has shown the opposite, however. President Obama inherited a toxic domestic and foreign-policy legacy from the Bush administration. Obama’s coalition of strong and ambitious personalities, of differing interests and hardnosed views, requires extraordinarily strong leadership at the top to prevail over the rest.

Outside, there is America’s powerful military-industrial complex, traditionally close to Republican thinking, to contend with. There is the Tea Party movement, a leaderless and raucous loose network of extreme rightwing spoilers, otherwise representing a dynamic similar to the movement of moderate and progressive Americans that catapulted Obama to the White House. And a growing body of disenchanted supporters that could be as damaging to the Obama presidency as it was helpful before November 2008.

In foreign policy, a defiant Israel bent upon thwarting Obama’s Middle East hopes. Iran and Turkey, largely a problem of America’s own making. And the drone attacks on the Afghanistan-Pakistan front that kill many more civilians than militants. Such behavior of the U.S. military violates international law, highlights double standards and creates the impression that the commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful nation is not in control of his military.

The months between now and the November 2010 mid-term elections will be make or break time for the Obama presidency.

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