McChrystal’s MacArthur Moment?

Anticipation — and anger — continued to build in the halls of Washington this week over the Obama administration’s Afghanistan ditherings. Will the president give Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US occupation forces (and their international collaborators) in Afghanistan, 40,000 more troops or will he send McChrystal packing, a la Harry Truman versus Douglas MacArthur, for conducting an unseemly public relations campaign at Obama’s expense?

The only option that’s seemingly already been taken “off the table” is a complete US withdrawal from Afghanistan any time in the foreseeable future. That’s not surprising; all the incentives on both the civilian and military sides of government point in the other direction.

On the military side, nobody with the gray matter to manage promotion to general really believes that the war can be “won.” On the other hand, no general wants to be the one to say so, least of all the general holding the hot potato in his own hands.

McChrystal is working hard to set up a “heads I win, tails Obama loses” scenario. If he gets his addtional troops, he’ll muddle along for a couple of years, manufacturing artificial metrics of “success” to brag about, then pass the baton on to the next guy, get the hell out of Dodge, and let some other poor schmuck go down as “the guy who lost the war,” while Obama bears the brunt of the public’s blame for the war’s continuation.

If he doesn’t get the troops, he’ll resign in a huff (if he doesn’t get fired first) and spend the rest of his life regaling all who’ll lend him an ear with “if only” tales of glorious victory snatched from his jaws by an incompetent Obama.

Given his ham-handed “leak loudly” approach, seemingly geared to produce the latter outcome, it’s even possible that McChrystal’s counting on it, perhaps as part of a scheme to boost a 2012 Republican presidential campaign (already in its stage whisper phase) on the part of General David Petraeus, former commander of US forces in Iraq and now in charge of Central Command.

On the civilian side, Obama is caught between rocks and hard places on all sides.

Even though a majority of Americans now favor withdrawal from Afghanistan, he believes — probably correctly — that three years is plenty of time for his opponents to turn “obedience to public sentiment” into “dangerous weakness in the face of America’s enemies.”

On the other hand, like his generals, he also knows that the war can’t be “won” in any meaningful sense of the word. He knows that if he commits more troops to the fight, the only noticeable change will be an increase in American casualties which will also damage his re-election prospects.

It’s starting to look like he’ll try to split the difference — commit some portion of the 40,000 troops McChrystal demands (and possibly fire him), outline some mealy-mouthed, impossible to measure new objectives, and hope to keep the body counts low enough that Afghanistan becomes a “back-burner” issue by 2012. Even if it does, though, he’ll take it in the shorts as a candidate: He’ll have displeasured the pro-withdrawal American majority and the “give the generals whatever they want” War Party hardliners. He’d be better off jumping one way or the other than he will be if he sits on the fence. And he’s already indicated which way he’ll jump, if jump he does.

If Obama fires McChrystal, he’ll try to make some hay with his defense of “civilian control of the military,” but he’s unlikely to score many points with such a move. In the post-WWII era, that fiction has been superseded by a new truth: “Military-industrial complex control of the military — and of the civilians.” Obama faces a likely pickle with the public no matter what he does. His political future is largely dependent, at this point, on how willing he is to kowtow to the generals, as that will weigh heavily in the matter of whether or not he can tap the “defense” industry for campaign money.

War is more than merely the health of the state — it’s the original template for how government “works.” The incentives are all geared toward doubling down on hubris, throwing good money after bad, and sacrificing blood and treasure — others’ blood and treasure, of course — without end to the cause of holding on to domestic political power. Those inescapable incentives necessarily pervade all governments and are just as applicable to ObamaCare, TARP or telecom immunity as to Afghanistan. Body bags tend to focus the attention more powerfully than balance sheets do, though, don’t they?

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