Saturday, October 10, 2009

Once again, an American wartime president discovers he has been painted into a corner of his own Oval Office.

And once again, a president summons his top war-zone general to a one-on-one meeting aboard a presidential plane parked on an overseas airport tarmac - after the general brought public pressure upon his commander in chief.

To be sure, we’ll go wrong if we look for too many parallels between the Oct. 3 meeting of President Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal on a Copenhagen airstrip and the 1950 meeting of President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur on the Wake Island tarmac. For instance, Mr. Obama’s meeting began punctually and proceeded respectfully. Not Truman’s.

“Even after we stopped the engines and they opened up the door of the plane, the bastard still didn’t show up,” Truman fumed to author Merle Miller for his aptly titled “Plain Speaking.” Some 45 minutes passed. “Finally, the (SOB) walked out of one of the buildings near the runway there,” Truman said, adding he told MacArthur: “I don’t give a good goddamn what you do or think about Harry Truman, but don’t you ever again keep your commander in chief waiting. Is that clear? His face got red as a beet …”

So Gen. McChrystal is no MacArthur. But they got into the same snafu by going public with views their presidents wanted to hear privately. In 1950, MacArthur had sent a message to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention outlining his vision for America’s military strategy and foreign policy. Anything else, he said, would be “appeasement … a fallacious and threadbare argument.”

Said Truman: “I made it more than abundantly clear to him that I was his commander in chief and that he was to obey orders and … not issue any public statements of any kind that hadn’t been approved by me personally. He was just like a little puppy at that meeting.” In time, Truman would relieve his general of his command.

Fast forward 59 years. Mr. Obama’s hand-picked general concluded 40,000 more troops are needed in Afghanistan and must be deployed differently. That’s probably right, but as the president prudently began reviewing all options - intelligence and diplomatic as well as military - before deciding to send more troops to war. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has urged a scaled-back strategy for keeping al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but not for keeping the Taliban from gaining ground there.

Yet Gen. McChrystal went public, telling a London think tank a scaled-back strategy won’t work and saying any strategy leaving Afghanistan unstable would be “short-sighted.”

Hours later, Gen. McChrystal was rushing to Denmark. And Mr. Obama’s most apolitical team patriots were issuing velvet-gloved televised rebukes of the general. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said, “It is imperative that all of us … provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately.” National security adviser and former Marine Gen. James Jones said, “It is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

So far, Mr. Obama’s review-first-then-decide approach makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is the mindlessly partisan way some Republicans rushed to demand Mr. Obama give Gen. McChrystal everything - without making sure the strategy is right and the corrupt Afghanistan government won’t be overthrown by its own people.

How quickly these Republicans forgot the lessons of those other presidents who actually painted themselves into a corner - by rushing troops into war without getting the strategy right. Lyndon Johnson kept sending Gen. William Westmoreland more troops for Vietnam. And President George W. Bush cut resources for Afghanistan and ran to invade Iraq without a strategy for what his troops would do - in Iraq or back in Afghanistan - the day after they “won” by toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Today in Afghanistan, incidents of violence are 60 percent greater than a year ago and something must be done. Gen. McChrystal may well be right and Mr. Biden’s idea may be riskier. But we must finally make sure we get it right. Afghanistan cannot become America’s war alone. Our NATO allies must re-up, too.

We have all been painted into a corner.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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