By Patricia Lee Sharpe
So Obama had the guts to do it. Good. It had to be done. How can the troops do their job wholeheartedly if their commanding general and his closest aides are bad mouthing the whole Obama administration? The not-so-good General McChrystal and his circle were a veritable fountain of contempt—does anyone believe the quotes in Rolling Stone were the only such utterances?— which means the he and his clique were continuously, brazenly, massively sowing disaffection among their subordinates. Let’s be really blunt here. McChrystal was sowing the seeds of mutiny. By so relentlessly challenging civilian authority, he was setting the stage for justifying a military take over.
Am I exaggerating? Only slightly. The U.S. has already gone too far in the direction of militarizing foreign policy, and there have been straws in the wind supporting a run for the presidency by General Petraeus, who is being lauded for being willing to accept a kind of demotion in order to replace McChrystal in Afghanistan. In fact, his willingness to take the new assignment graciously is something to appreciate. In so far as President Obama has wisely decided not to confuse the issue of culpable contempt with the issue of evaluating the effectivness of the current strategy, it makes sense for the originator of the C.O.I.N. approach that McChrystal was applying to take over. However, the tendency among some Americans to deify generals, which McChrystal obviously took too close to heart, is frightening. There are too many spineless civilian politicians who’d rather rely on a Caesar than make tough decisions themselves. Once upon a time it was said that the CEO of General Motors would know how to run American properly. That sounds pretty laughable now. Something similar applies to generals. Their sphere of knowledge is war, not good governance---or foreign policy as a whole.
Obviously McChrystal and his advisers had decided that Obama was gutless. They had already rolled him last fall. However, in spite of the General’s loose lips, he was put in charge of the war in Afghanistan, and he got his surge. The deal: you’ve got until summer 2011 until the troops start coming home. Hopes were high. The right man. The right strategy. Etc. Etc. Unfortunately the much bally-hooed guaranteed-to-succeed little Marjah campaign didn’t succeed. Which meant the blockbuster follow-up in Kandahar has been postponed and postponed and postponed. Very awkward. No doubt McChrystal was feeling very frustrated.
But why did McChrystal do it? Why did he allow any interview? There’s the ego thing. Clearly McChrystal thinks well of himself. But why, with a reporter from a muck-raking magazine running around, did he and his aides so thoroughly trash the Obama administration? Ambassador. Special envoy. National Security adviser. Vice President. The president himself. This was a scorched earth campaign, if there every was one. It was contempt for sure—and a West Point man would not be unaware of Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military justice. McChrystal acted out of an arrogant presumption that he was exempt from the application of the Code, just as he had managed to thumb his nose at rules throughout his life and career.
So now we know why McChrystal dared to ridicule civilian authority. More interesting is the question of why he felt he had to do it. The reason is all too simple: McChrystal was losing the war he was supposed to have turned around by now. At best he found himself in a stalemate. The General who was going to reverse two thousand years of military history in Afganhistan was going the way of all the rest. What’s more, his misfiring policy of making nice to the Afghans was putting his troops at additional risk, which would only have been acceptable if success were on the horizon.
Let’s pause here to consider that strategy: Soldiers with guns ablaze are an honest phenomenon. Soldiers who feign friendship, while keeping guns in reserve, remain a coercive force. This is the internal contradiction, the essential hypocrisy of the strategy. Afghans understand it perfectly. Hamid Karzai included.
So the strategy isn’t working, and McChrystal hoped to shift the blame to the hapless, insufficiently macho civilians (some of whom, ironically, are former military men). It was a desperate effort to save face, as in: the best defense is a good offense.
What was the alternative?
Ah, but there was an alternative. A tough one, perhaps, but one that a truly brave man and a great soldier could have managed. He’d have looked the Commander in Chief in the eye and said, “Sorry, Sir, I did my best and our men are the best, but the strategy isn’t working. We need to work out another approach.” The generals in Viet Nam didn’t have the guts to face up to such realities. And neither did McChrystal. So he blamed his problems on the bozos in Washington.
That was a very serious mistake. President Barack Obama properly dismissed him for it.