Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Runaway Hyperbole

I understand why Obama had to let McChrystal go. It was politically impossible to keep him. But, come on. The president said that the contents of the infamous Rolling Stone article: "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system." All the pundits agree. Universal acclaim. It was the right move.

Had it not been for an Iceland volcano
this might not have happened. Thank god Michael Hastings got grounded with McChrystal long enough to uncover this massive threat to civilian control of the military. My god, think what might have happened if McChrystal and his staff had continued to pursue the war.

But, wait a minute. At what point was the Obama administration's military policy actually threatened by the article? Does Obama really think the lofty aim of "civilian control" was jeopardized by McChrystal's staffers making routine jokes about the administration? (
Read the article. These guys joked that way about everything. They called themselves "COINdinistas" for example. Joking and slander doesn't make anyone less professional about the mission.) Seems disingenuous.

This isn't Truman vs. MacArthur. McChrystal wasn't out there publicly criticizing the president's policy as MacArthur specifically did with Truman. It needs to be stressed that at no time during the period covered by the Rolling Stone reporter did General McChrystal say anything critical about the conduct of the war in Afghanistan.

Now, of course, civilian control was undermined among fellow civilians (ie. politicians). But, I hardly think a free press and free expression threatens Obama's policy in Afghanistan. Or maybe things really are that fragile.

Let's take the article blow by blow. McChrystal complains about having to go to dinner with a French official. He shoots his chief-of-staff a bird (I think this is kind of noteworthy because it begins to give McChrystal's speech acts context, which Hastings does everything he can to obscure in the actual reporting of events). McChrystal hates all things French. He's a simple guy. He states he'd rather have his "ass kicked" than go to dinner with the French politician. Then, he tells his entire staff that "Unfortunately, no one in this room can do it" (meaning kick his ass). Then he leaves. Does anyone really think McChrystal is being disrespectful of his own staff? Again, context.

One of his staffers tells Hastings that he's going out to dinner with the French politician. "It's fu#king gay," the staffer says. This is the normal tone of conversation at this level. It is nothing personal, McChrystal and his staff don't respect politicians. (Neither do the American people that elect them - or apathetically watch other Americans elect them.)

Then the article points out that McChrystal publicly disagreed with vice-president Biden's Afghan policy of counterterrorism - in 2009 in London (before he took over command). Hardly news to anyone. While preparing for a speech in 2010, McChrystal jokes with his staff about hypothetical questions at the day's press conference. "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?" To which a staffer adds,"Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?"

Seems obvious enough to me that civilian leadership has lost control of policy in Afghanistan. Right. That's pure Obama hyperbole. No need to be so lofty Mr. President, nor so tissue-thin skinned.

The article goes on to highlight how little McChrystal and Obama connected in their first meeting, even though the general voted for the president. A McChrystal advisor is quoted as saying "The Boss" (isn't that what they called Stalin?) was non-plussed by Obama. The president probably should have fired him right then before he threatened theft of civilian control of the military.

The article then rambles through a series of meetings and interviews that occurred when McChrystal was getting what he wanted from the Obama administration to fight the war in Afghanistan. It is the usual litany of how this will never work. The whole approach to Afghanistan is wrong and doomed to failure. It seems Hastings is suggesting that McChrystal's attitude toward the administration was formed as a result of getting what he wanted. But, of course, that would somewhat indict the reporter rather than the report. Not fashionable today for sure.

According to Hastings, when McChrystal arrived in Afghanistan to begin his mission his staffers joked that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as western forces are collectively known, stood for "I Suck at Fighting" or "In Sandals and Flip-Flops." Was it at this point civilians lost control of the military, Mr. President? Last year?

Once again, context. These guys were flip and joked about everything (here's a news flash...they still do), not just the touchy Obama Administration. It is part of their build and it is obvious in the article as whole, though the article as a whole didn't get Stanley McChrystal fired today, did it?

The article then points out that it is McChrystal, not he president's appointed ambassador nor the administration's private advisor (layers of bureaucrats to protect our civilian control of the military no doubt), who formed the best relationship with Afghan President Karzai (a critical component to the strategy). In fact, the president's men were publicly quoted, without consulting McChrystal according to the article, that the whole policy couldn't work with Karzai in power. Perhaps it was at this point that McChrystal thought of taking over the war on his own accord since the "division" Obama preached against in dismissing McChrystal today was coming mostly from his own political appointments, not the military.

After a brief history of how McChrystal got to where he is (or was, sorry) in military power (which glosses over his valuable contributions in Iraq) there are a couple of quotes from military guys who hate McChrystal because they think he puts troops unnecessarily at risk. But, of course, such criticism of a (then) acting commander is a routine part of the speech acts in the public sphere. Somehow the shit only rolls one way, right?

Then we get McChrystal reviewing the troops and learning first-hand that they think we are losing the war. This, before Hastings blasts McChrystal's approach to the war, concluding that: "So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word "victory" when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge."

Not everyone agrees with this assessment.

Well now all that is in the capable hands of David Petraeus. Presumably safeguarding the "core of our democratic system" by protecting us from Ramboesque renegades like McChrystal.

I have no idea what strategy will work in Afghanistan. I have a good guess that more damage has been done to our cause by Obama's stupid statement last December about withdrawing troops in July 2011 than by anything Hastings was able to catch and spin on McChrystal. Basic military tenet: Don't tell the enemy when you plan to leave. They will just wait you out.

As I said, I understand Obama had to fire the General. But, best I can tell, it was for all the wrong reasons.

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