Like other media storms, the one raised by the resignation-cum-dismissal of General Stanley MacChrystal is likely to calm down soon. What merits attention is the story behind the story which could have consequences beyond the war in Afghanistan.
This back-story is about the inability, or unwillingness, of the current US leadership to commit itself to any course of action for any significant time.
Let’s take the Afghan side of the story first.
In February 2009 President Barack Obama asked MacChrystal to prepare a new strategy for winning the war in Afghanistan. Having opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a ‘ bad war’, Obama described Afghanistan as the ‘ good war’ and criticised his predecessor for allegedly not providing enough resources to achieve victory in the Hindukush.
Thus what the general thought he was supposed to do was to devise a plan for victory. In a press briefing in London last year, MacChrystal gave us an outline of the plan. Under the plan he needed 40,000 additional troops and between three to five years to achieve victory.
Once the plan was submitted to Obama, however, it was twisted into something different.
First, the very mention of ‘ victory’ was banned. The president ridiculed the notion as recalling Emperor Hirohito of Japan’s surrender to General Macarthur. (By the way that did not happen in reality). For the first time in history a leader was entering a war without seeking victory.
Next, Obama reduced the number of troops needed to 30,000 of whom only half would be actual combatants.
As if that were not enough, he then ordered a deployment plan under which the additional troops would be sent in small batches. This is why by the time he resigned, General MacChrystal had received fewer than half of the men approved in the plan. Now we are told that full deployment will be completed by the end of the year. The slowdown is not due to any logistical problems or shortage of manpower. In 2003, the US needed only four months to deploy almost 200,000 men to topple Saddam Hussein in three weeks.
Finally, there came the last straw. President Obama announced that withdrawal from Afghanistan would start in July 2011. Because full deployment will not be completed until the end of this year, that gives anyone in charge of the war less than six months to uproot the Taliban and start withdrawing.
In fact, the time-frame would be even shorter as Afghanistan’s harsh winter, starting at the end of September and lasting until the end of April makes major military operations difficult if not impossible.
In other words, the Obama plan is more of a political gimmick than a serious war strategy.
And where did that July 2011 date come from?
That date has little to do with Afghanistan but a lot to do with American presidential election of 2012.
Obama’s hope is that television footage of Marines returning home would prevent his potential rivals for the presidency from accusing him of having involved the country in an endless war.
Obama has applied to US domestic and foreign policies what he learned during his tenure as a Chicago politician. In Chicago politics the perception is more important than reality. It is also vital to stitch things up through give-and-take with adversaries who could one day become friends. The final decision is a patchwork in which conflicting constituencies see a reflection of at least part of their interests. In Chicago politics not all battles are worth fighting and no battle ends in clear victory for any side.
Finally, Chicago politics is designed to make sure that the average citizen does not find out what exactly is going on.
Examples of this culture being used in US foreign policy under Obama abound.
No one is capable of saying exactly what was decided at the Copenhagen summit on climate change.
The summit on nuclear disarmament also ended in a triple fishtail.
Obama promised to treat the revival of Israel-Palestine peace talks as a top priority. More than a year later, no one in Washington even mentions the subject.
Obama started cuddling the Baathist elite in Damascus with the stated aim of reducing Syria’s dependence on the regime in Tehran. Very quickly, however, the Syrians realised that they were dealing with a half-hearted wooer who did and did not want them at the same time.
Obama’s half-heartedness has also led to a drastic loss of influence in Iraq.
On Iran, Obama promised dialogue but ended up with new half-measure sanctions that neither kills the enemy nor persuades hi to become a friend.
The same half-heartedness was manifest in last weekend’s so-called G-8 and G-20 summits in Canada. Obama started with one of his melodramatic speeches, this time about the need for speedy return to economic growth through Keynesian public expenditure. He ended up being lectured by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron about cutting public expenditure.
In domestic policy, too, Obama has opted for the Chicago patchwork. No one is quite sure what the health reform act passed by the Congress would mean in actual life. The package announced for a reform of the Wall Street is equally contradictory and confusing.
And what about BP and the Gulf of Mexico oil slick?
Last month, Obama took BP for a Chicago-style shakedown forcing it to commit $20 billion to an escrow account to pay damages even before the full picture was put together. The grandiose mugging and the constant bashing of BP executives by the president led to a 40 per cent cut in the value of the company’s shares. Last week, however, the president went in the opposite direction by announcing that he wanted BP to continue being a viable concern.
Obama policies are designed to hoodwink the left, confuse the right and leave the average citizen wondering what was going on.
Let us return to the war in Afghanistan.
This war can and must be won but cannot be won with Chicago-style politics. Like love, war requires total commitment to succeed. Obama is culturally incapable of providing that commitment.
Last year angry Americans wanted to elect the anti-Bush. They did. George W Bush’s style of Texan politics meant that he was culturally inclined to enter every battle with the resolve to achieve victory. His critics branded him as a cowboy who shoots first and asks questions later. If we accept that caricature we could say that Obama is the perfect anti-Bush: he asks lots of questions first and ends up by not shooting at all.