The civilian-military relationship is not a matter of the president reflexively trusting the military establishment or doubting it. It is always a matter of the president -- Lincoln, Truman, Bush, Obama -- picking the right general who understands the war and then supporting him to the hilt.
In this case, there is a considerable gap of credibility among contenders for this trust. The team led by Petraeus is fresh from dramatic counterinsurgency progress in Iraq and believes that similar advances may be possible in Afghanistan, with a proper strategy and sufficient resources. The team led by Vice President Joe Biden opposed the Iraq surge; Biden called it a "tragic mistake." He also voted against the first Gulf War, arguing "What vital interests of the United States justify sending young Americans to their deaths in the sands of Saudi Arabia?" And he displayed consistently poor judgment during the Cold War, opposing missile defenses and undermining resistance to communism in Central America. Biden must view himself as a combination of Kissinger and Clausewitz. But there is little basis for this self-regard.
Is it conceivable that Obama will overrule the advice of military commanders at the high point of their reputations? Yes, it is conceivable. But it is more likely that Obama will accept the counterinsurgency approach of his generals in principle, while making significant modifications in practice. Obama may publicly step away from the proposed 40,000 troop increase, accelerate the training of the Afghan army and police, and then gradually increase U.S. troop levels by smaller increments. He would gain praise from many for a wise, considered decision.
But this wise, considered decision could itself be a trap. If McChrystal is to be believed, America is not merely failing to win in Afghanistan; it is losing. It may require a jolt of resources to revive the patient and convince a skeptical American public that progress is possible. An incremental approach may simply bring defeat more slowly. And it will get much harder over time to ask Congress for additional resources if the middle way fails.
"Too often in Afghanistan," an administration official told me a few weeks ago, "tomorrow has looked just like yesterday." After Obama's decision is implemented, Afghanistan must somehow look different.
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