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The McChrystal Report: A Make or Break Moment for Obama

8:15 AM, Sep 21, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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General Stanley McChrystal's classified assessment of the situation in Afghanistan has been obtained by the Washington Post. According to the Post's report, McChrystal warns that without the deployment of additional U.S. forces, the war "will likely result in failure." McChrystal has already put together a detailed troop request, but the administration has asked that he delay in submitting that request for fear of complicating Obama's health care push on the Hill. The Times speculates that McChrystal will ask for anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 additional troops. I've heard rumors the number could be as many as 60,000 additional troops at the high end.

It's probably not a coincidence that the McChrystal report leaked just as Obama looked like he was going wobbly on his commitment to the war effort. Democrats on the Hill are already threatening to obstruct funding for additional U.S. forces -- Pelosi, Levin, and Murtha among them -- and Obama was skeptical of the need for more U.S. forces on the Sunday shows yesterday. "I don't want to put the resource question before the strategy question," Obama told CNN's John King. "Because there is a natural inclination to say, if I get more, then I can do more. But right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?"

Obama may be trying to appease the left wing of his own party with a very public show of reluctance to add additional forces to the fight, but the administration has already deployed at least 22,000 additional U.S. troops since his inauguration. The previous commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan had requested 20,000 to 30,000 additional forces before Obama was even sworn-in. Obama sent 17,000 more troops in the spring, keeping a campaign promise but setting himself up for what Senator McCain said at the time would be "a Lyndon Johnson style of incrementalism." Indeed, Obama sent 4,000 more troops in June. Now McChrystal is set to request yet more forces in order to fulfill a need that was long ago identified by General McKiernan.

According to the McChrystal assessment, "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." Yet Obama is slow-walking the troop increase for political reasons, even as it seems likely that he will, in the end, do the right thing and send the necessary reinforcements.

The assessment also says that "While the situation is serious, success is still achievable." Obama's hand-picked commander has laid out a strategy for defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban. During the campaign Obama had promised to give the war in Afghanistan the attention and resources necessary to do just that -- in explicit contrast to the Bush administration whom he alleged had diverted the resources and attention of the military from the real threat of al Qaeda and their Taliban allies in Afghanistan.

McChrystal leaves no doubt about what must be done if Obama is to keep his word -- more troops and very soon. The president cannot delay that decision any more -- not for the sake of his health care initiative or anything else. And in any case, as a matter of politics the best thing for Obama and the Democrats is to win the war. Yesterday Obama immodestly compared himself to some of the great presidents of American history. "Maybe you hear what people had to say about Abraham Lincoln, or what they had to say about FDR, or what they had to say about Ronald Reagan when he first came in and was trying to change our approach to government." That answer came in response to a question from George Stephanopoulos about the health care town halls during the August recess. But it wasn't legislative accomplishments that made those men great presidents. It was their decision to commit fully to the major conflicts of the day -- and to win decisively.

Health care reform won't make or break Obama's presidency. The way he conducts the war in Afghanistan will.