Streetwise Professor

June 22, 2010

What Is It About Guys Named Mac?

Filed under: Military,Politics — The Professor @ 2:40 pm

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.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by . said: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention -- — June 22, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  2. Have to agree, with Obama’s chain of logic – McChrystal form of critique is wrong = his arguments are wrong = my opinion is right = everything is fine in Afghan – there is no chance Obama would change his strategy in Afghan after this affair. He will most likely advocate it even more stubbornly, demand better results and when they are not achieved, it will be an excuse for him to relieve rest of McChrystal’s guys of command. Things will go terribly in Afghan, Obama will have clear hands and fault will end up on military commanders.

    Comment by deith — June 22, 2010 @ 6:45 pm

  3. You really love the word ass-clown!

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — June 22, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

  4. @S/O: it’s so descriptive, and sadly, there are so many it describes so well–hence the frequent use.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 23, 2010 @ 1:54 am

  5. @Deith–I think you are pretty close to the truth. Obama was never interested in this, never took ownership, only went as far as he did out of political expediency, and has been looking for a way out ever since. The key to his exit strategy is finding a scapegoat. McChrystal and his staff just nominated themselves for the role. Like you say, now Obama will claim that he was failed by his military; the war isn’t winnable; and we should get out post-haste.

    Ironically, I don’t necessarily disagree with getting out. Like I’ve said before, either go large or go home. Obama chose to split the baby, with predictably disastrous results. Particularly with this crowd in charge, withdrawal is probably less detrimental to US interests than having them wage a war in a half-hearted, half-assed way. Certainly it’s not worth getting good American soldiers and Marines killed with no chance of achieving anything due to the completely flawed strategy currently in place.

    The largest cost of all this will be to alienate further the military from civilian authorities. That is very, very troubling. Yes, the military owes the civilian chain of command deference, and McChrystal and his people violated that obligation. But there must be reciprocity. Obama has surely failed in his obligation to the military, most notably to the people in the field whom he has committed to combat but largely pushed out of his mind.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 23, 2010 @ 2:03 am

  6. Men of Gaelic descent have always been very disproportionately represented among those Americans decorated for valor. That is they are great combatants.

    The most highly decorated American in the First World War was Bill Donovan (later to lead the OSS) and the second most decorated was Douglas MacArthur. Audie Murphy was number one in the Second World War.

    Perhaps because they are also often highly impolitic though, Celts have not always been the greatest commanders at the strategic level.

    Over the last hundred years, men with German or Germanish (e.g. Swiss German or Alsatian) names have seemed to have had the most strategic success: Pershing in the First World War, Eisenhower (never actually in combat himself) in the Second, and Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm.

    Sometimes, like MacArthur or Patton (basically Scotch-Irish), the Celts have also been great commanders, at least at the theater level but seem to lack the political sense necessary to succeed at the very highest level in the public arena.

    Comment by John McCormack — June 23, 2010 @ 8:07 pm

  7. You forgot Professor that Matt Taibbi, the scourge of Government Sachs, once worked for the eXile. It’s all becoming clear now, isn’t it? Rolling Stoned is obviously a Russkie Commie plot.

    Comment by Mr. X — June 24, 2010 @ 12:53 am

  8. I blame the Iceland volcano. McChrystal, his loud-mouth staff members, and the Rolling Stone reporter were in Paris when the ash cloud moved over Europe. They were delayed for a few extra days in the City of Lights and proceeded to do what anyone does when stuck in Paris while on an expense account…get hammered!

    Alcohol + boredom + disaffection + reporter with tape recorder ? career enhancement.

    Comment by Swaggler — June 24, 2010 @ 8:54 am

  9. […] Streetwise Professor: Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one. […]

    Pingback by McChrystal’s Revenge: Everyone Hates Karl Eikenberry – Rethink Afghanistan War Blog — June 24, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

  10. John: Yes, the Celtic/Scots-Irish influence in American military culture is strong, and remains so. Re the German connection–I wouldn’t put Pershing up there with the great strategists. Read about the Meuse-Argonne, and you’ll be quite disenchanted with Pershing’s generalship.

    Back on the Scots-Irish. Are you familiar with the Grady McWhiney book “Attack and Die,” which attributes Confederate defeat in large part to the innate aggressiveness of the Celtic-based Southern culture? Said culture favored the attack, which per McWhiney condemned the CSA to adopt tactics which resulted in far too many casualties than it could afford.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — June 24, 2010 @ 4:13 pm

  11. […] Streetwise Professor: Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one. […]

    Pingback by McChrystal's revenge: Everyone hates Karl Eikenberry | Politics in the Zeros — June 24, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  12. […] Streetwise Professor: Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one. […]

    Pingback by McChrystal's Revenge: Everyone Hates Karl Eikenberry | Enduring America — June 25, 2010 @ 12:35 am

  13. […] Streetwise Professor: Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one. […]

    Pingback by McChrystal’s Revenge: Everyone Hates Karl Eikenberry | The Urban Times — June 26, 2010 @ 4:51 am

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