Obama’s problem isn’t that McChrystal is talking smack about him. His problem is that McChrystal isn’t pursuing his foreign policy. McChrystal wants to “win” the war in Afghanistan (whatever that means) no matter what it takes. Obama believes that doing whatever it takes will cost the U.S. so much money, and so distract the administration from other concerns, that it will cripple his efforts to stabilize America’s finances and rebuild American economic power. That’s the struggle that Hastings exposes: between a single-minded general who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission and a president who believes that even if that mission saves Afghanistan, it could bankrupt the United States. It’s a struggle about whether America is going to adjust to the new limits on its power or pretend that they don’t exist.
Obama’s problem in this regard, however, is that McChrystal isn’t really a “runaway general.” His perspective seems to be shared by General David Petraeus, by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and by many of the rising stars in the military of the Petraeus-Gates era. Meanwhile, even though that COIN-enthusiast faction has by no means achieved total control over the military the cost-control argument against McChrystal’s vision is the critique that has the least in the way of a natural constituency anywhere inside the military.
From where I sit, the question of what Obama should do with McChrystal just reduces to whatever course of action he thinks will best reign-in the military’s PR war in favor of an unlimited commitment to Afghanistan. In terms of the ongoing debates about presidential power, the conduct of the war is a scenario in which the White House’s formal power to decline to expand our commitment is extraordinarily solid. But the political power of the doves in the administration is relatively low vis-a-vis the political power of hawks in uniform. So a lot will come down to the President himself: Will Obama run political risks to stand by the ideas he originally outlined?