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Works and Days

McChrystal’s Tragedy

June 23rd, 2010 - 12:06 pm

2) I smiled at Obama’s reference today to “common purpose.” True, but again not long ago at a critical juncture in Iraq, Obama himself, entirely for partisan purposes and on the campaign trail, had no interest in the common purpose of military success in Iraq. Here is Obama in 2007 on the surge (at a time when we desperately needed “common purpose”):

“I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” Or: “I don’t think the president’s strategy is going to work. We went through two weeks of hearings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; experts from across the spectrum–military and civilian, conservative and liberal–expressed great skepticism about it. My suggestion to the president has been that the only way we’re going to change the dynamic in Iraq and start seeing political commendation is actually if we create a system of phased redeployment. And, frankly, the president, I think, has not been willing to consider that option, not because it’s not militarily sound but because he continues to cling to the belief that somehow military solutions are going to lead to victory in Iraq.” Or: “My assessment is that the surge has not worked.”

3)   McChrystal’s crudities, of course, were mostly on target. The Afghanistan policy and those who carry it out do not inspire confidence: Deadlines only empower the Taliban to wait us out. (Remember that George Bush refused to set them for that very reason.) Obama did not meet with McChrystal for months. It was foolish to pick a public fight with our Karzai ally. It was sillier to turn loose mega-egos like Holbrooke and Eikenberry with the expectation they would be team players. (NB: this reminds us that we can see that one of the reasons that the surge worked was a particular tone established at the top by Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Crocker is also a much underestimated figure, whose professionalism and competence will increasingly be appreciated, in contrast to the current diplomatic team in Afghanistan. We owe him a great deal; he was not an advocate of invading Iraq, and yet when asked to serve did his best to carry out a policy that saved lives and a country itself. He was a far better candidate for a Nobel Prize than Obama will ever be.)

4) Conservatives err by citing all sorts of legitimate reasons for McChrystal to have expressed frustration: sorry — all are irrelevant in terms of his dismissal. We all agree with almost all of them. But they are not the issue. It remains judgment, the chain of command, civilian/military relations, and the very wisdom of palling around with a reckless loose-cannon reporter in Paris. He had to go, pronto.

5)   The politics of McChrystal were weird, at least as I observed them. For weeks conservatives and many in the military complained of his restrictive rules of engagement — to a degree far more so than during the Anbar Awakening under Petraeus. One cannot be faulting McChrystal for having a COIN strategy that endangers troops in the field, and then regret that Obama is, with good cause, relieving someone who was the avatar of that strategy. So what is it? (I suspect that troops in the field will be split over the decision to remove McChrystal, with some perhaps relieved.)

6)  The Left is in a trap in Afghanistan of its own making. From 2007-8, Obama et al. created a false narrative of Afghanistan as the good war and Iraq the bad, predicated not on facts, but only on casualty rates, public opinion, and their own desire to strut national security toughness without ever making gut-check decisions. Afghanistan was quiet in 2007 and so seen as stable—so why not adopt a “let me at ‘em” attitude? Iraq was scary, so why not trash it as Bush’s lost and unnecessary war? But Afghanistan has no tradition of secular literacy, Iraq a little—and no ports, terrible terrain, no oil or cash to work with, a nuclear Pakistan next door, and so on and on. Some of us cringed when we saw that Obama was taking the tougher challenge and boasting of his warrior cred, and trashing a war that was winnable, and indeed in the very process of being won. Nemesis again for the nth time with this president. (Cf. Guantanamo suddenly no longer the gulag, or renditions and Predators no longer terror).

7) Obama got our attention off BP for a day, and a bad day it was, as the spill regushed this morning in greater volume, so to speak. His speech today was fine—if one ignores the usual serial invocation of “I”, “me,” and “my” that we’ve become accustomed to, as the president tries to radiate authority with first person pronouns rather than common sense reality.

8) The tragedy of all this? There was a way for McChrystal to have expressed his frustration that would have done himself and the nation a lot of good: write a letter warning of the problems, then when it was not acted upon, formally resign and express the reasons for such a departure. McChrystal was apparently at a point anyway where something was going to blow up, so why not have gone out with dignity and with a lesson for the nation, rather than being dry gulched by Rolling Stone and playing right into the hands of those like Jones, Eikenberry, and Holbrooke?

9) David Petraeus had earned a much needed respite with the CentCom command. Yet here we go again calling on his talents, after his recent brush with cancer and his fainting spell. The odds are against Petraeus this time; but I remain hopeful for this reason: if Petraeus cannot win Afghanistan, then it is not winnable for Americans. And I tend to think it is very winnable, if Obama cuts out the withdrawal talk, keeps his differences with Karzai private, gives Petraeus free rein,  and brings in someone like Crocker on the diplomatic side. Right now we must have only the best. A General Mattis at CentCom would do wonders. A Crocker/Petraeus/Matthis team would be like finally getting Grant/Sherman in control. (Yes, I know, we have a verbose Edward Everett, not an insightful A. Lincoln in charge.)

Petraeus is our modern Belisarius, which both encourages and scares me because such talents do everything for us and are, in the end, treated very poorly for their efforts. I hope the final chapter with Petraeus ends better than Justinian’s treatment of the one general who gave him victory when defeat was certain.

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