"This is not a war of choice," Barack Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Aug. 17. "This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9-11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaida would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."
But that was nearly seven weeks ago. Now, it appears that Obama is about to ignore the advice of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, whom he installed as commander in Afghanistan in May, after relieving his predecessor ahead of schedule. McChrystal, who came up as a Special Forces officer, is an expert in counterinsurgency. Not surprisingly, in his Aug. 30 report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, he recommended a course that seems certain to require a substantial number of additional troops.
During the first three weeks of September, Obama held one meeting on the "war of necessity." Then, on Sept. 20, Obama appeared on five talk shows to push his health plan. The next day, Bob Woodward published a story in The Washington Post based on a copy of McChrystal’s report, which the newspaper later posted in redacted form. Woodward made it clear that McChrystal would request more troops. When questioners pressed him about the war, he said he was rethinking his Afghanistan strategy.
The rethinking looks a lot like a rejection of his general’s recommendations. McChrystal said last week that he had spoken to Obama exactly once since he was appointed. But many people, notably Vice President Biden, seemed to be speaking against his recommendation in a three-hour meeting Obama held with advisers on Thursday, Oct. 1.
According to The Washington Post, "senior advisers" challenged some of McChrystal’s key assumptions. "One senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meeting, said, ‘A lot of assumptions — and I don’t want to say myths, but a lot of assumptions — were exposed to the light of day.’"
Sounds just a bit condescending, doesn’t it? Among the assumptions, wrote the Post reporters, is "that the return to power of the Taliban would automatically mean a new sanctuary for al-Qaida." That’s the same assumption Obama made in his speech to the VFW 44 days before.
On the day of the White House meeting, McChrystal was in London to speak to a foreign-policy group. He was asked whether Biden’s approach, to downsize the number of troops and focus on killing selected terrorists, could work.
"The short answer is no," McChrystal said. "You have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a shortsighted strategy." The next day, on his hastily scheduled trip to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, Obama managed to squeeze in 25 minutes for McChrystal. Presumably McChrystal defended his "I don’t want to say myths, but a lot of assumptions."
What to make of all this? First, Afghanistan was never a "war of necessity." It was, like all our wars, a "war of choice." Franklin Roosevelt could have avoided provoking Nazi Germany and imperial Japan; eminences like Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh were arguing that we could survive, perhaps uncomfortably, in a Nazi-dominated world. But Roosevelt chose to risk war in order to rid the world of evildoers.
Declaring Afghanistan a "war of necessity" was a way for Obama and other Democrats to attack George W. Bush for choosing, in their view unwisely, to wage war in Iraq. But now when it comes time to wage the "war of necessity" in the way that our carefully selected general recommends, it turns out not to be so necessary any more. Not when Democratic politicians and Democratic voters are shying away from it.
It’s not clear yet that the "senior advisers" who were mocking McChrystal’s assumptions will prevail. In his 25 minutes on Air Force One, McChrystal may have used his knowledge and experience to convince Obama that his judgment was better than that of the armchair generals that the president had listened to for three hours the day before. Maybe Obama will choose to wage his "war of necessity" in the way the general he selected believes is necessary for us to succeed.
But I wouldn’t bet heavily on it — not any more, in fact, than I would have bet on Chicago’s chances of hosting the 2016 Olympic games.