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News Analysis

McChrystal forces Obama into a no-win situation

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2010

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama faces two grim choices on Wednesday: Fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal and risk looking like he’s lost control of the war in Afghanistan. Or keep him and risk looking like he’s lost control of his generals.

Even before McChrystal’s very public slap at his boss surfaced on Monday night, the White House was already bristling at the perception that the war in Afghanistan was becoming unwinnable.

The decisive military offensive to clear the strategic town of Marjah has foundered. Another, bigger offensive to drive the Taliban from its home turf in Kandahar has been delayed. U.S. casualties are rising in a war that ranks as America’s longest, surpassing the grim milestone of 1,000 dead earlier this month. Corrupt warlords and Taliban militants are pocketing tens of millions in U.S. aid.

Now Obama must add a new crisis to that daunting list: The commander he handpicked to win the Afghanistan war allowed a reporter for Rolling Stone to embed with him and his closest staff for a month, offering up a series of incendiary and embarrassing comments about the president and his war cabinet.

If he fires McChrystal, Obama will enjoy the dubious distinction of being the only president in modern U.S. history to sack two wartime commanders in a little more than a year. Last May, Gen. David McKiernan was relieved of post commanding the Afghan war effort after the White House and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “fresh eyes” were needed to find a more successful path forward.

On Capitol Hill, where last week key lawmakers from both parties peppered Gates and Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus with probing questions about the course of the Afghan war, leaders praised McChrystal’s work but simultaneously blasted his decision to speak with Rolling Stone.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other key Senate Armed Services members issued a statement calling McChrystal’s comments “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between Commander-in-Chief and the military.”

Retired Navy vice admiral Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., said that military officers have a responsibility to speak bluntly, but “you say that privately and keep it behind closed doors.”

But Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a key liberal voice in the House, called McChrystal’s comments “contemptuous of his civilian superiors” and demanded his resignation. CBS News later reported that McChrystal had offered a letter of resignation.

“His comments, and those of his subordinates, dismissing the President, the Vice-President, Gen. (James) Jones, Ambassador (Karl) Eikenberry, and Richard Holbrooke suggests that Gen. McChrystal is locked into an ‘everybody is wrong but me’ approach to the world,” Obey said.

Still, most congressmen stopped short of calling for McChrystal’s dismissal, saying instead that the tone and sincerity of his apology after Wednesday’s meeting with Obama would determine his future role.

Daniel Goure, vice president of the conservative Lexington Institute, said the reason for that is simple.

“To put anyone else in charge right now would be a disaster,” Goure said.

Goure said the Rolling Stone article doesn’t quite amount to a Truman/MacArthur moment, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was sacked over his public opposition to President Harry Truman’s strategy in the Korean War. The most damning comments in the article come from McChrystal’s advisers, Goure noted, and at least one of those staffers has already been fired for his involvement with the piece.

Regardless, Goure said, no other American figure has the clout with Afghan president Hamid Karzai or the knowledge of the counterinsurgency strategy to succeed in Afghanistan.

But the liberal group VoteVets.org said McChrystal must be fired for disrespecting the chain of command.

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the article could easily be used as Taliban propaganda, revealing infighting among U.S. leaders and a lack of real concern for the Afghan people.

“He’s supposed to be leading efforts to win the hearts and minds over there,” Katulis said. “This article doesn’t help.”

Obama already is suffering from dwindling support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. A Gallup poll released earlier this year showed that more than a third of voters believe it was a mistake to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan. A Pew Research Center poll released earlier this month showed a drop in confidence in Obama’s foreign policy decisions, both among Americans (down 9 percent) and in European and Middle East countries.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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