During the most difficult days of the Mondale-Ferraro campaign in 1984, someone printed up a button that said: “There are no problems. Only opportunities.”
By that definition, President Obama has one heck of an opportunity right now with respect to the war in Afghanistan.
There is no easy answer to what to do when the general running the war and his senior staff are quoted — apparently accurately — attacking everyone on the president’s team except Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has said that doing the Rolling Stone
interview was a mistake of judgment. The president, understandably livid, has called McChrystal to Washington either to be scolded or fired. It hardly matters which.
The general will, of course, stand there and eat crow. He will profess his confidence in the president and apologize for his mistake. He might even claim that his quotes were taken out of context or did not fully reflect his views — or some other Washington-speak that comes short of accusing the reporter of lying (because doing that would only prompt another round of stories proving that the quotes were accurate, and then some). The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the general says now because no one will believe him.
The president can either accept the apology or fire the general or, most likely, both. If he doesn’t fire him, he looks like the “wimp,” which was the point of the story. If he does, he risks worsening his relations with the military and being blamed for everything that goes wrong from now on in a war in which more seems to go wrong than right. Since this is the war he ran on, the supposedly good war (as opposed to Iraq), and since he has been in office going on two years, blaming Bush and his team just won’t cut it.
Military officials complaining about their civilian bosses is not exactly something new in the history of war. Read any history of any war and you’re likely to find criticism that makes the current back and forth seem almost polite. My guess is that there were plenty of complaints about George W. Bush. Ditto for Bill Clinton. Civilian control doesn’t mean the military thinks the civilians know better.
The bottom line is that the generals got what they wanted from the administration, and it still isn’t going well. Victory has a thousand fathers. America’s longest war is, at least for now, pretty much an orphan. I wouldn’t presume to suggest the solution to that problem: If the general doesn’t have one and his senior command hasn’t come up with one, far be it from me.
But the president’s political problem is another matter. He needs to convince the country that he is in charge, in command, up to his job — whether it is dealing with the spill in the Gulf, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the unemployment crisis almost everywhere. He needs to be honest, forceful and decisive — not partisan or political. He needs to be bigger than his opponents — not dwarfed by them.
In the old parlance, he has a real opportunity. And his presidency may ultimately be judged by how he uses it.