The Rosett Report

Obama's Teachable Moment: Getting to Know the General

Rolling Stone’s piece on The Runaway General hit the web, and presto! before the print edition was even on the newsstands, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was ordered back to Washington for a sitdown with President Obama. If only Obama had been as eager to clear time on his calendar for McChrystal back in 2009. That’s when really getting to know the general — the man entrusted with winning the war in Afghanistan — should have been one of the top priorities of the new president.

I’m not suggesting that with earlier close acquaintance Obama might have spotted the seeds of McChrystal’s “enormous mistake” — as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs described it at press briefing Tuesday. I’m suggesting that better leadership from Obama himself would have averted this mess altogether. Whatever comes next for McChrystal, the biggest lesson here is one the commander-in-chief himself has yet to master.

It’s this simple: To win this war, America, and its generals, need to be led by someone who really wants to win the war. Someone who believes his country is great, and extraordinary, and deserves to win its wars. Someone who takes a direct and genuine interest in those he sends to the frontlines. Someone who makes a point of really getting to know the general he puts in charge. Someone, in sum, who does what’s needed to inspire loyalty and respect.

Has Obama done that? He put McChrystal in command last summer, and over the following 70 days talked with him exactly once — by videoconference (something it was left to Fox News to discover in late September). He left McChrystal dangling during an agonizingly drawn-out strategy review last fall. He showed strangely little regard for the internal conflicts he set in motion. As Eliot Cohen points out in the Wall Street Journal, Obama assembled a “dysfunctional team composed of Gen. McChrystal, Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Amb. Richard Holbrooke — three able men who as anyone who knew them would predict could not work effectively together.”

And though Obama dropped in on Afghanistan as part of his nine-day, eight-country world wonder tour during his 2008 election campaign, he did not visit there at all — not once — during his first full year in office. He found time to fly to Copenhagen, twice — first to lobby for a Chicago Olympics, then for the sham of a UN climate conference. He flew to Oslo to collect a Nobel Peace Prize. He found time to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, time for a “beer summit,” time for golf, time to spend Thanksgiving in Chicago, time to stick around Washington for the Christmas Eve push on a health care bill that the majority of Americans didn’t want, and time after that for a Christmas holiday at a beachfront estate in Hawaii (where, following the underwear bomber’s flaming arrival over Detroit, Obama “monitored” the situation, waiting three full days before saying anything in public about the man he then referred to as an “isolated extremist”).

It was not until March, 2010, that Obama finally found time to visit the troops in Afghanistan.

And what inspiring vision has Obama provided for the troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan? In the lingo of his administration, they are fighting to protect America against the further mass spawning of “man-caused disasters.” This is a president who has bowed to the despots of China and Saudi Arabia, and made it a policy to apologize for America — doing so from Cairo to the D-Day commemoration last year on the Normandy coast. This is a president whose message from the United Nations stage last September was that America is nothing special, and whose speech at West Point in December was no rousing call to victory, but an argument that America will fight on a timetable not to win the Afghanistan war, but to “end” it, because “the status quo is unsustainable.”

As my colleague, Cliff May, notes on NRO’s Corner, the real issue here is not an article in Rolling Stone, but that America is under attack. “A war is underway. Fight it. Win it.”

William Shakespeare, who understood plenty about politics and war, gave us iconic scenes in Henry V of how a commander-in-chief treats his men. During the night, before the Battle of Agincourt, the king, disguised as a common soldier, goes about the camp to talk with his men, hear their fears and doubts, and discover their mood. Then, as they gird for battle, he steps forth as their leader, to inspire loyalty with a call to honor and a great victory: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

To avoid more blowouts like the article in Rolling Stone, Obama’s real challenge is not to humiliate a war hero who made the mistake of letting a reporter listen in on deep discontent with the politicians back home. It is to throw out Rules for Radicals and become a fast study in the ways of Henry V.  White House spokesman Gibbs was busy savaging McChrystal’s command when he said that parents of soldiers “need to know that the structure where they’re sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war.” But Gibbs’s words are a more fitting a reproach for the White House, and its commander-in-chief. When Obama gets done working over Gen. McChrystal, this would be an excellent “teachable moment” for the president himself.