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Works and Days

McChrystal’s Tragedy

June 23rd, 2010 - 12:06 pm

Where to start? Here’s is an update on the entire mess.

He Had to Go

1) McChrystal, in fact, is a brave and heroic figure deserving our respect. But among friends and with a mole in his midst, he still himself deprecated the commander in chief. His staff took care of the VP, the national security team, and most of the diplomatic personnel involved in Afghanistan. All came close to conduct unbecoming of officers: “In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side.” And here in McChrystal’s own words: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?” And the general creates a climate in which his staff reduces his superiors to fools: “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his f…ing war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.” That’s right out of George McClellan’s frequent caricatures of Lincoln. What was more worrisome than the general’s own remarks was the ease in which his subordinates thought they could quite graphically trash their superiors — to a reporter, no less.

2) Is it smart to be in Paris within a mile of any creep from Rolling Stone? How dumb is that? Such tag-along groupie folk exist to trash the military, and only get close to officers by being disingenuous in a manner that most teenagers would not fall for — much less a four-star general supposedly adept in insurgency trickery. What was the motivation? An accident? Ego? An effort to send a shot across the diplomats’ bow? Worry that the war is going south and a cry from the heart to get attention?

3) Who wasn’t trashed? We get jokes about meeting with a French diplomat — at a time when we want the French to stay in the war. Why should we know that McChrystal voted for Obama? To this day, speculations about Petraeus’s political ambitions are always predicated on queries like: “But what party would he run with?” How did that come up? Do generals now self-identify as left or right — and if so, for what purposes other than careerist advancement?

4) If McChrystal were not fired, then what would have happened if a dissident colonel or major gave the same sort of trash interview about McChrystal himself, or if such an officer’s subordinate captains and majors dished the same dirt on McChrystal to the press that his team did about their president? McChrystal has a reputation for not tolerating any untoward conduct. Yet within hours he let into his innermost circle a creepy sort, and then all poured their hearts out to him. To whom wouldn’t they have talked trash?

5) The story was vulgar.  We are introduced to Gen. McChrystal in the piece as he flips off his polite his chief of staff (e.g., “The dinner comes with the position, sir,” says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn. McChrystal turns sharply in his chair. “Hey, Charlie,” he asks, “Does this come with the position?”). The point is not that officers talk tough, but that generals talk that way with outsiders in the room, and among lower-ranking officers.

And Then There Is The Politics of All This

1) Petraeus was a wise choice. He will face far less criticism from the media and politicians than during 2007-8 (e.g., there will be no more “General Betray Us” ads or “suspension of disbelief” ridicule, or someone like an Obama at the confirmation hearing sermonizing nonstop on why Petraeus’s efforts will fail), because his success this time will reflect well on Obama rather than George Bush. Consider the further irony that Obama is suddenly surging with Petraeus. Not long ago he was declaring that just such a strategy and commander were doomed to failure in Iraq (see below). Of course, then he was running to take office on what was wrong rather than trying to stay in office on what’s right.

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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