We noted in The Corner yesterday this extraordinary New York Times story suggesting the Obama administration is considering blending the McChrystal and Biden strategies — counter-insurgency in population centers, counter-terrorism outside of it. I’ve talked to a couple of McChrystal supporters who aren’t as alarmed by this report as you might think. They believe it either reflects the account of White House officials who don’t fully understand the McChrystal strategy (which does include an element of pulling back from the more remote areas), or pre-emptive spin to try to salvage something publicly for Biden when the internal debate is really turning against him.
Reading the tea leaves, it appears that defense, state, and the intelligence community has concluded that the Taliban is dangerous and it can’t be fought effectively without something like McChrystal’s 40,000 troops. The politicos, though, seem to want to turn the process on its head. The original idea was to come up with the strategy and ends first, then decide on what troop levels are necessary. The political aides seemingly want to come up with the most politically palatable troop number — say splitting the difference at 20,000 — and then ask what strategy can be supported with that number. The White House has given the impression of wanting to rig the process against McChrystal, but of failing as the facts — reflected in the positions of defense, et. al — lean the other way.
The other conflict is probably between Obama’s head and his heart. In his heart, there’s every reason to believe, he doesn’t want to do this. It’s not what he or his supporters are fundamentally about. But his head is likely having trouble coming up with a plausible reason to deny McChrystal. One other dynamic to be aware of: McChrystal is very Petraeus-like in how unvarnished he is in his assessments and how realistic he is about the low expectations we should have. With Petraeus in Iraq, that attitude was a useful corrective to President Bush’s resolute commitment to victory. With McChrystal, every time he talks that way he’s probably stoking the fears of the White House political aides and Obama’s own doubts.