Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Barack Obama’s commander in what the president has renamed the Af-Pak theater, has been trying, with the help of Democratic as well as Republican hawks, to bounce Obama into a really long war.

Unless McChrystal gets a lot more troops — to reach at least the 100,000 total he wants by the end of the year — there is likely to be a “mission failure,” to use the general’s words. That is the message McChrystal was in Washington to deliver at the end of September, doing the Sunday talk shows, crowned by “60 Minutes,” and receiving lots of slaps on the back by politicians who want to go his way.

He didn’t go much into the heavy casualties on both sides that his way would entail, including lots of civilian killings, but he implied a promise of ultimate victory. The general’s more optimistic promoters foresee 10 years to reach victory, which this writer would think generously understated in view of the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan add up to twice the population of united Germany.

The general’s celebrity weekend came to an end in Copenhagen, when President Obama had a little talk with him in the comfortable setting of the lounge aboard Air Force One, parked at the Copenhagen airport.

The occasion was the president’s unwise and misplaced campaign speech delivered to the wrong audience, the International Olympic Committee, a speech that won Chicago first ticket out of the competition for the 2016 Olympic Summer Games. (Outdoors competition in Chicago’s summer heat is not to be wished upon anyone).

There are a number of things to be said about the general and the war, the first being that it is not for Gen. McChrystal to leak his staff’s strategic plans to The Washington Post, do the celebrity circuit and tell the public in so many words that if he doesn’t have his way the United States can expect defeat and humiliation in Asia.

The most famous American general to try to bounce a president into more war was Douglas MacArthur (“There is no substitute for victory!”), in 1951 in the Korean War. President Harry Truman proved too tough to bounce and fired him. President Obama might make a useful point by doing the same to Gen. McChrystal. The president could hardly be blamed for dismissing the man who was his own choice, since he didn’t know the general when he nominated him, and now that he’s met him, could have changed his mind.

Generals do many useful things, including offering their professional advice when asked for it. But backdoor second-guessing of a president, while friends whisper to the press that Obama after all doesn’t know anything about war? How could a community organizer who went to school in Indonesia and at Harvard, of all places, know about that?

The president is not paid to know about war. He’s paid to decide whether it would be wise to tie up the American nation for the next decade in a very large, and almost certainly expanding, war against a large part of the people who now live in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

If this was the old brown-shoe, spurs and boots army, Gen. McChrystal could accurately be said to have grown too big for his britches. Another general, the national security adviser, James L. Jones, has told him so, in suggesting that advice best comes up through channels, not via the Fox network.

Gen. David H. Petraeus had his hour of glory with the surge in Iraq, and may be thought to have had in his time visions of a grateful nation carrying him on their shoulders to the White House. Now he has explained to The New York Times that he is allowing Gen. McChrystal his hour of fame while he himself lies low. Fame and presidential possibility are fleeting, rapidly and conclusively so for soldiers.

MacArthur sentimentally told a cheering joint session of Congress about how old soldiers don’t die, but “just fade away. …” The nation’s representatives wiped a tear from their eyes, and faded away from Capitol Hill to get a drink before lunch.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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