Many on the center-right have settled on some version of the Peter Robinson/Jennifer Rubin/Daniel Foster/National Review solution for the mess made by General Stanley McChrystal and his staff. In that scenario, McChrystal offers to resign and President Obama, in the interest of winning the war and broader U.S. national security, refuses to accept it.
It's not hard to see the appeal of that outcome. McChrystal is a strong leader. He is largely responsible for conceiving of the strategy that we're executing now, a strategy that is quickly approaching its decisive push. McChrystal has a good relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. He's one of the only American officials to have the trust of the Afghan leader, who, for all of our concerns about him, is crucial for whatever success we might hope to have in Afghanistan. Finally (and I'm not talking about the current controversy here), McChrystal has repeatedly and successfully pushed his civilian leaders to obtain the military personnel and strategic flexibility to win the war. So there is a strong argument for letting him continue in his role.
I don't think it would work. The Rolling Stone article has done irreparable damage. The first of McChrystal's qualifications -- that he is a strong leader -- has been compromised. Even if one agrees with many of the assessments McChrystal and his staff offered about the Obama administration's national security team, the way those critiques came to light is unacceptable. And this kind of public mocking of senior civilian officials sends an unmistakable message to the troops under McChrystal that the civilian leadership is not respected.
There is a larger concern. In the aftermath of the Rolling Stone article, will McChrystal be able to challenge the civilian leadership to do the things required to win the war? I'm skeptical.
When President Obama announced the new, McChrystal-backed strategy in a speech at West Point on December 1, 2009, he also announced that the U.S. would begin withdrawing in July 2011. The withdrawal date has done serious damage to our efforts in Afghanistan, even as some of the president's advisers have denied that it means a quick exit.
Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, spent time in Afghanistan earlier this year. He told me about a conversation he had with one local leader who was working with the Americans. This Afghan leader told Barrasso that within hours of Obama's speech word spread that the Americans would be leaving in 2011. Almost immediately local and national leaders began a mad scramble to ally themselves with anyone with lots of guns and some popular support, entities that would be around when the Americans left -- the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Pakistani military and, yes, Iran.
I've heard similar stories from virtually everyone I've interviewed about Afghanistan. Even the mainstream press has been filled with stories about the damage of the withdrawal date.
Convincing the president to back off of his deadline will mean fighting hard against his political advisers and, one imagines, his political instincts. The Rolling Stone article made clear that many of the senior officials working on Afghanistan remain skeptical of the current U.S. strategy there. And those are the policy people. The political team has been outspoken -- at least internally -- in its opposition, especially David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs.
Will a severely weakened McChrystal be able to tell Obama what he needs to hear? And will he win the arguments that will inevitably follow, with strong opposition coming from Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, and others on the ground in Afghanistan? Will he speak with the authority necessary to shape policy and challenge the president?
President Obama has ordered McChrystal back for a meeting today. NBC's Chuck Todd reported that a senior official told him McChrystal "has a path to save his job" if he performs well in the one-on-one session with the president today. So if McChrystal grovels well enough he stays? What does that mean?
The good news, to the extent there is any, is that Obama says he's committed to the counterinsurgency strategy now being executed in Afghanistan. And the early indications are that he will not use this episode to back away from the commitments that he's made going back to his campaign.