Rupert Cornwell: President's message to allies, enemies and Pentagon brass

It is one thing to hold an uninhibited discussion in private. It is quite another for the argument to rage in public

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:11

What took him so long? Another president, faced with such mutinous cheek from a senior commander, would have picked up the phone and fired General Stanley McChrystal on the spot – albeit at 5,000 miles range. But that is not the Obama way.

He summoned the errant general back to Washington, listened to him – doubtless in a glacial silence – and made up his mind in his own time. In that sense the humiliation for General McChrystal was even greater. He was summoned to the White House and then excluded from an Afghanistan strategy meeting, featuring many of the administration officials he and his entourage had disparaged in the infamous Rolling Stone interview.

According to reports, General McChrystal will not even return to Afghanistan to say goodbye to his men and pick up his things. His personal effects will be packed on his behalf, it is said, and sent back.

For all the suspense of the last 24 hours, there was never much doubt of the fate awaiting the disgraced Afghan commander. For President Obama to have kept him on, even having extracted a grovelling apology, would have sent an unmistakeable signal that this young Democratic commander-in-chief could be rolled by the Pentagon brass (and who knows who else).

Republicans – usually so quick to jump on this President in particular, and to defend a military supposedly ever threatened by feckless and weak-kneed Democrats – have been silent. Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary and the lone Republican holdover from the George W Bush administration, seems to have been as outraged as anyone at the insulting language used by team McChrystal.

But, Mr Obama stressed yesterday "this is a change in personnel, not of policy". In that sense, the nomination of General David Petraeus as replacement is a master stroke. In a sense, it is a demotion for General Petraeus, currently head of Central Command, and thus in overall charge of the Afghan war. But he is also one of the intellectual fathers of the "counter-insurgency" policy that underpins the Afghan surge announced last December by the President. He is respected by US allies, including President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, and admired by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. There could be no clearer signal that the existing strategy will continue.

What Mr Obama will definitely want to eliminate however are the public disagreements over that strategy in the highest echelons of his administration. This President prides himself on his readiness to listen to differing points of view.

But it is one thing to hold an uninhibited discussion in private. It is quite another for the argument over Afghanistan to rage in public, with leaks of secret telegrams and the spectacle of top officials openly contradicting one another on television and in the press.

Not only are such public airings of disagreement especially irksome to an administration as tightly disciplined as this one. It sends the worst possible signal to uneasy allies and an increasingly emboldened enemy.

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