Three of the greatest crises of American civil-military relations involved generals of Gaelic descent: George B. McClellan, Douglas MacArthur, and now Stanley McChrystal.
Of the three, McChrystal’s sins are the least serious, but also the dumbest. I mean, talk about a charlie foxtrot moment: just whose great idea was it to let it all hang out for Rolling Stone, for crissakes? I mean, this is so gobsmackingly stupid on the surface that it leads me to believe that there is a deep, crafty, guerilla war strategy under the surface: perhaps (and I am just pulling this out of you-know-where) McChrystal and his staff had made every effort to make their serious concerns about the war in Afghanistan made known through channels, but had failed, and turned to this desperation ploy to focus attention on the issue.
Nah. I don’t believe it either.
Mass career suicide is not the American Army (or Navy or Air Force) way (and the same is true for just about every military in memory, except for the Japanese in WWII, who took it literally). And even if McChrystal et al believe that the situation has reached a crisis stage, and that they deem it their duty to sacrifice their careers to express their deep objections to the way the war is being run from Washington, there is a right way to do that. Shooting off your mouth to a journalist from some leftist rag isn’t it.
But regardless of the reasons for the disclosures to a freaking rock magazine (the most damaging of which came from the mouths of the General’s staffers, rather than his own), they give a glimpse of a very disturbing, dysfunctional relationship between the military commanders in the field in Afghanistan, and the entire civilian chain of command, from the Ambassador in Kabul, to the National Security Advisor, to the VP, and to the President himself. The men in the field apparently have nothing but contempt for Obama and those who work for him. (Only Hillary comes off well–another reason, as if she needs one, to watch her back.) Moreover, such backbiting is hardly a harbinger of victory: instead, it is a symptom of a failing military effort.
It is hard to say whether it would be worse if the disdain is warranted, or not. My sense is, though, that the distrust of the field commanders for the civilian leadership is largely merited. Obama only talked about Afghanistan during the campaign to demonstrate his tough guy bona fides. When in office, his reluctance to take charge of the war was palpable. Instead of leadership, he gave a series of dog ate my homework excuses, played Hamlet, and finally “decided” on a strategy that was fundamentally flawed and doomed to failure. He has subsequently all but washed his hands of the matter, relegating it to the very bottom of his priority pile; McChrystal’s discouraged and discouraging assessment reported in the article is probably an accurate one. Joe Biden is Joe Biden. The only quibble that I would have with the characterization of Jim Jones as a “clown” is that I probably would have inserted “ass” before “clown.” Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one.
The first casualty will almost certainly be McChrystal. A president cannot afford to be dissed so publicly, especially a president in an extremely weak political position. (In this Obama is similar to both Lincoln and Truman at the times of their confrontations with their generals, but Obama is no Lincoln or Truman).
But it should not end there. Obama has handled Afghanistan poorly, and needs to change directions forcefully and rapidly.
The stakes here are not as high as when McClellan was sitting at Harrison’s Landing in 1862, or when MacArthur was in Japan/Korea in 1951. The country does not face a full blown insurrection that has achieved a series of major military victories. We are not engaged in a full-scale conventional conflict in the shadow of nuclear confrontation, facing stalemate or an escalation to a major land war in Asia–perhaps involving the use of nuclear weapons.
But they are high enough. This situation has to be fixed, and fast. The disclosures in the article is merely a symptom of a deeper, underlying problem. The mission in Afghanistan is in crisis, as was inevitable almost from the moment that Obama chose the politically palatable but militarily impractical middle option of a mini-surge into a logistical backwater with a short time line. Fecklessness in matters military eventually extracts its price, and we are paying that price now. This matter deserves far more presidential attention than anything–oil spill or no. Commander in chief is the president’s first and foremost responsibility. He has fallen down badly on this responsibility to date, and needs to change that. Now.
This is not to say that McChrystal’s way is the right way. There has been a lot of cogent criticism of his approach (e.g., from Michael Yon). But Obama’s way is definitely the wrong way. He has to acknowledge that, and devise a new strategy that reflects military reality rather than political expediency.
But sad to say, I would estimate the likelihood of that happening to be small indeed. It is a triumph of hope over experience (to borrow from Samuel Johnson) to think that the crew that got us into this fine mess will get us out, particularly given its appalling performance on just about every test of executive leadership.