It’s Now Obama’s War

Obama, for those of you who did not witness his just concluded speech, has fired General McChrystal, and replaced him with Petraeus.  At the same time he reaffirmed, with unusually strong language, that McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan will not change. (When I get access to the transcript I’ll add the direct quote).

I normally hesitate to make snap judgments, and I am only too willing to hear some pushback from all of you, but I thought this was an extraordinarily risky move by Obama. Call it ballsy.  Call it foolhardy.  Call it leadership. Or call it classic Obama – but my first reaction is that he has managed to split the difference again.  In effect, he jettisoned the General, while doubling down on the General’s strategy.  The immediate consequence in my view is that he’s now lost all political cover on this issue. At one point he could potentially say we tried it McChrystal’s way, and it’s not working.   That becomes harder to do with McChrystal gone – now if things go sour the refrain from the Right will be “Why didn’t you keep McChrystal?”

And that means he has a difficult decision to make if, and when, it becomes clear next July that the scheduled draw down probably can’t happen.  Do we stay or do we go?

For better or for worse, this is now Obama’s War.


(Note: Martin has an interesting take in the comments to my previous post on this topic).

2:57 Addendum:  Here are the direct quotes from Obama I referenced above, taken from the New York Times website, that indicate it’s full steam ahead with the McChrystal strategy, if not with McChrystal:

“So make no mistake. We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on Al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.

That’s the strategy that we agreed to last fall. That is the policy that we are carrying out in Afghanistan and Pakistan…

Let me say to the American people, this is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy. General Petraeus fully participated in our review last fall, and he both supported and helped design the strategy that we have in place.”

Does that sound like a President who is using this as an opportunity to reconsider his strategy?  I think not.


  1. Matthew,
    I agree that Afghanistan is Obama’s war but it didn’t start today.
    The Democrats made a campaign argument that Bush took us into Iraq when he should have stayed in Afghanistan to get Bin Laden.
    I think Bush’s strategy was deliberate. History shows nobody wins a war in Afghanistan. Bush understood that, settled for getting the Taliban out of power and focused on bringing Al Qaeda into an area better suited for our combat techniques.
    I was hoping Obama was smart enough to mouth the rhetoric and downplay Afghanistan once he got in power, but he apparently believed the Democratic line.
    One possible favorable outcome may come to Obama with his appointment of General Petraeus to take over. There have been rumors that Petraeus was considering running for President in 2012. The more he gets tied to the quagmire in Afghanistan, the less likely that becomes.
    Martin’s comments that yesterday (Tuesday) was a bad day is a major understatement. Rep. Steney Hoyer was quoted as saying that House Democrats don’t feel bound by candidate Obama’s pledge to not raise taxes on people making less than 250,000.
    I work in the Washington Metro area. To add to the “What’s going on here” mood, you should have heard what I heard on the radio on the way to work this (Wednesday) morning.
    Former “Love Boat” actor and Iowa Congressman, Fred Grandy, hosts a local radio news talk show. He was taking calls and commenting on a letter from six Senators to President Obama. They were asking for a denial of rumors that Obama is considering an executive proclamation pardoning all the illegal immigrants and, perhaps, if possible, granting them citizenship.
    The word Grandy was using a word to describe the possible reaction was a word I didn’t expect a former Congressman to use: Revolution!
    I would go farther than Martin and say that things are turning bad very quickly. I am almost afraid to find out what will be on the radio in the morning. But, as the greeting goes, “Have a good day!”

  2. Matt, thanks from Beijing for the lifeline to rational-critical discourse about current events back home.

    I agreed with your original post, that Obama should not be swayed by the media discussion and keep his eye on what’s significant in terms of policy.

    However, after having just read the article, I think the “interests” and “ideas” arguments about about competing political factions, divergent policy ideas and potential challengers to Obama in 2012 really does not explain recent events well.

    As Clinton might say, its about political communication stupid. The Dems biggest weakness has always been the perception of being weak on national security. While Obama’s ability to stay above the media fray has served him well, he cannot afford a piece like this that makes him appear weak and unsure. He cannot afford the perception that the military is not entirely under civilian control. He cannot afford the perception that the soldiers on the ground believe that the war is un-winnable. Therefore, he had to reassert his authority, his certainty in the strategy and above all else, control the message. He would have gotten steamrolled if he did not try to take control of the discussion.

    Does any one else find it utterly remarkable that Rolling Stone just brought down a four star general? This is an article that clearly constructs its own narrative and has a political agenda against current policy. It is devoid of the professional ethics that would have constrained reporters at other major news outlets. On one hand I view it as interesting, but ultimately irresponsible journalism. On the other hand, I’m wondering what the hell team McChrystal was thinking letting this guy into their inner circle? How could someone so politically adept be so blatantly foolish? It is a tactical error of incredible proportions.

    In the end, it may not be the powerful that are the most interesting characters in this story, but the fact that and a single reporter can have such an important impact on US decision-making and the fourth branch of government is now led by Rolling Stone.

  3. Dale,

    Your comment is a timely reminder that presidents do take their campaign rhetoric seriously, even when they might be better off ignoring it. We tend to forget that during the 2008 campaign Obama, in order to burnish his military credentials but also position himself as the change candidate, came out strongly for a military drawdown in Iraq (as already negotiated by Bush), and a renewed focus on bringing the fight to Afghanistan. His supporters tended to focus on the Iraq side of the equation, but Obama has been true to his word, so those who voted for him shouldn’t be surprised by his decision to out-Bush Bush in Afghanistan. My big concern with this decision, however, has always been that the surge and hold strategy seems easier to pull off in Iraq, with its functioning civil class, than in the more “tribalized” Afghanistan.

    It has been a rough slog of late for the President. We shouldn’t forget, however, that everyone president hits these spots. Let’s see how Obama reacts.

  4. Orion,

    I agree, at least in part, with your emphasis on regaining message control as the impetus for Obama’s decision to both can McChrystal but also strongly reaffirm the basis Afghan COIN strategy. I think, however, that some of that messaging was directed at Kharzai, and the Taliban, and our allies. Obama clearly was trying to signal to all of them that firing McChrystal did not signify a weakening of U.S. resolve in Afghanistan, at a time when Kharzai is considering opening up negotiations with the Taliban, and there are indications we are losing the “hearts and minds” battle as Afghan villagers, fearing a U.S. withdrawal, stay neutral.

    Here’s my concern: maintaining message discipline does nothing to convince the military men and women on the ground that current U.S. tactics will work. That, to me, was the real revelation in the Rolling Stones article – the troops don’t believe in the tactics. Reaffirming support for a strategy that the troops don’t support is not very reassuring, is it?

    As for McChrystal’s motives in letting the Rolling Stone have access – who can say? A desire for press clippings? Battle fatigue? I’m not sure even he knows…. .

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