Lyndon Baines Obama

Deciding the right strategy begins with asking the right question.  When the White House was waltzing McChrystal around trying to find a way to talk him out of his request for more troops, I questioned the wisdom of applying the Petraeus counterinsurgency strategy which worked in Iraq — temporarily — to Afghanistan. Where, because the nation is 50% bigger, and in there is no significant Afghan uprising against the Taliban as there was in Iraq against al-Quaida, the strategy couldn’t work.

Since then, it’s become clear that the White House will try to compromise McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in favor of a smaller buildup or no buildup at all.

There is no course more dangerous to the lives of our troops  — and our future security — than to do what President Obama clearly wants to do: apply Lyndon Johnson’s failed brand of indecisive warfare to Afghanistan.

In the opening pages of We Were Soldiers Once, and Young, Joe Galloway and retired General Hal Moore tell the story of Gen. Harold K. Johnson, then army chief of staff, who drove to the White House to resign in protest of President Johnson’s order that the Airmobile Division go to Vietnam, making it an American war.   

General Johnson believed that the deployment — without a declaration of emergency that meant a full-scale national effort to win — was, according to the book, “an act of madness.”  But at the White House gate, the general’s resolve failed him. He pinned his stars back on his shoulders and drove back to the Pentagon.  As Galloway and Moore wrote, the change of mind haunted him for the rest of his days.

If President Obama decides to pare back McChrystal’s request for reinforcements and a new strategy — focused on the Afghan population in the classic counterinsurgency mold — both General McChrystal and his boss, General David H. Petraeus, will face the same moment that Harold Johnson did on July 28, 1965.  

I never knew Harold Johnson and do not know Stanley McChrystal.  I have met David Petraeus many times and — though I don’t know him as one would know a friend — I believe him to be a man of principle who would not participate in a strategy he knows is doomed to fail, wasting many young American lives in the process.  

President Obama apparently knows this, and for that reason has been avoiding a decision on Afghanistan.  He sees the stories about the climbing number of casualties in Afghanistan, one in the Washington Post proclaiming Afghanistan “Almost a Lost Cause.”  His administration has blocked Republican efforts to obtain congressional testimony by McChrystal and Petraeus on the Afghanistan situation.

Petraeus hasn’t openly endorsed McChrystal’s request for more troops, but McChrystal wouldn’t have gone forward without his private endorsement.

Obama will craft some sort of compromise designed to buy the generals’ support. They apparently anticipate that he’ll offer something such as the full number of troops McChrystal requests but only for a short time, probably one year.  That’s the time in which McChrystal’s 30 August report says we may lose Afghanistan to the Taliban if we don’t revise our strategy and provide the resources to implement it.

But seeing this moment coming, Petraeus and McChrystal have been preparing the media battlefield.  Failing to gain the president’s attention, McChrystal took his argument to CBS’ “Sixty Minutes” and to a think tank speech in London.  Answering whether he’d compromise for a smaller troop increase, McChrystal said, “The short answer is: no. 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 short-sighted strategy."

Petraeus, too, made a very unusual statement.   Last week, America’s most highly-respected general said that our goals in Afghanistan will have to be changed — meaning adjusted downward – if the president rejects the strategy revisions and increased resources he and McChrystal say are needed.

The prospect of either McChrystal or Petraeus (or both) resigning poses an enormous problem for Obama. His spending spree, the continued rise in unemployment and the Obamacare mess in congress is reflected in slipping poll numbers and rising public doubts about his ability to govern.  If McChrystal resigns, it will be devastating. If Petraeus joins McChrystal in resignation, Obama may have created an opponent who could defeat him in 2012.

Obama and his team should study carefully the last incident in which an American general resigned on principle.  

July 27, 1997 was a very different day than July 28, 1965.  Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogelman asked the Secretary of the Air Force Sheila Widnall to relieve him of his duty and allow him to retire a year before he was scheduled to do so.  Fogelman  — who many remember for his courageous stand against the senate on the Kelly Flinn matter — resigned over the refusal of Secretary Widnall to promote Brig. Gen. Terry Schwalier.

Flinn — a female B-52 pilot — had been fired for lying to her commanding officer about a love affair she’d had with the husband of an enlisted woman.  Attacked in a senate hearing over the firing, Fogelman stood up to then-Sen. Trent Lott and insisted that she was fired not for being a woman or having an illicit affair but because she lied to her commander.  Fogelman won that one.

But he lost when he insisted that Schwalier — the commander of the Saudi facility at which the al-Quida bombing of the Khobar Towers killed 19 American servicemen — was denied promotion.  Fogelman, after an investigation, determined that Schwalier did everything a commander could have done to prevent it, but Widnall insisted someone be held accountable. She chose Schwalier.

In a 1997 interview, Fogelman talked about his many frustrations with the civilian leadership, ranging from fact-defying decisions on force structure to Flinn to Schwalier.

Widnall’s decision on Schwalier was the last straw.  Fogelman said, “As chief of staff of the United States Air Force, charged with providing military advice to the civilian leadership that the civilian leadership did not value for whatever reason, I had become ineffective as a spokesman. This was a crowd that took any kind of military advice that ran counter to administration policy or desires as a sign of disloyalty on the part of the person providing the advice. That was one element; the other was based on what I had seen and the way the Khobar Towers tragedy had been handled. I simply lost respect and confidence in the leadership that I was supposed to be following.”

McChrystal and Petraeus are guilty only of trying to answer the wrong question. 

McChrystal’s strategy — derived to meet the goals President Obama has set — will require many years, perhaps decades, of U.S. forces deployed in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.  It is the wrong strategy not because we should abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban, but because it is another adventure in nation-building which leaves us on the strategic defensive fighting only the surrogates of the principal enemy, the nations that sponsor terrorism.

But having answered Obama’s question to the best of their ability, they will be — if Obama denies them the strategy changes and troop increases they need to do the job he’s defined for them — in precisely the same situation Fogelman was when he determined that he had lost the confidence and respect of the leaders they are supposed to follow.

Will Fogelman or Harold Johnson be the model that Petraeus and McChrystal follow?  

Ronald Fogelman set a very high standard every American general should meet.  I have no reason to expect that either McChrystal or Petraeus will fail in that.

Cartoon by Brett Noel.