THE GENERAL McCHRYSTAL DEBACLE: A COMMENT
"'How'd I get screwed into going to this dinner?' demands Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It's a Thursday night in mid-April, and the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan is sitting in a four-star suite at the Hôtel Westminster in Paris. He's in France to sell his new war strategy to our NATO allies – to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies. Since McChrystal took over a year ago, the Afghan war has become the exclusive property of the United States. Opposition to the war has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany's president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. McChrystal is in Paris to keep the French, who have lost more than 40 soldiers in Afghanistan, from going all wobbly on him.
'The dinner comes with the position, sir,' says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn. McChrystal turns sharply in his chair. 'Hey, Charlie,' he asks, 'does this come with the position?' McChrystal gives him the middle finger.
The general stands and looks around the suite that his traveling staff of 10 has converted into a full-scale operations center. The tables are crowded with silver Panasonic Toughbooks, and blue cables crisscross the hotel's thick carpet, hooked up to satellite dishes to provide encrypted phone and e-mail communications. Dressed in off-the-rack civilian casual – blue tie, button-down shirt, dress slacks – McChrystal is way out of his comfort zone. Paris, as one of his advisers says, is the 'most anti-McChrystal city you can imagine.' The general hates fancy restaurants, rejecting any place with candles on the tables as too "Gucci." He prefers Bud Light Lime (his favorite beer) to Bordeaux, Talladega Nights (his favorite movie) to Jean-Luc Godard. Besides, the public eye has never been a place where McChrystal felt comfortable: Before President Obama put him in charge of the war in Afghanistan, he spent five years running the Pentagon's most secretive black ops....
McChrystal takes a final look around the suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, not unlike an older version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you've fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice. 'I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,' McChrystal says. He pauses a beat. 'Unfortunately,' he adds, 'no one in this room could do it.' With that, he's out the door. 'Who's he going to dinner with?' I ask one of his aides. 'Some French minister,' the aide tells me. 'It's fucking gay'....
Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. 'I never know what's going to pop out until I'm up there, that's the problem,' he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner. 'Are you asking about Vice President Biden?' McChrystal says with a laugh. 'Who's that? Biden?' suggests a top adviser. 'Did you say: Bite Me?'"
Michael Hastings, "The Runaway General," 22 June 2010, in www.rollingstone.com/politics/news
"Gen. McChrystal's just-published interview in Rolling Stone magazine is an appalling violation of norms of civilian-military relations. To read it is to wince, repeatedly—at the mockery of the vice president and the president's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the sniping directed toward the U.S. ambassador, at a member of his staff who, when asked whom the general was having dinner with in Paris said, "Some French minister. It's so [expletive deleted] gay." The quotes from Gen. McChrystal's underlings bespeak a staff so clueless, swaggering and out of control that a wholesale purge looks to be indicated.
The larger predicament here is not the general's fault. The Obama administration has made three large errors in the running of the Afghan war.
First, it 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. Mr. Eikenberry was a former commander in Afghanistan, junior in rank to and less successful than Gen. McChrystal, and had very differing view of the conflict. Mr. Holbrooke, a bureaucratic force of nature, inserted an additional layer of command into a fraught set of relationships. As a stream of leaks has revealed, the staffs loathe each other.
The second error lies in the excruciating strategy review of last fall. Internal dissension spilled into public, making it clear that Vice President Joe Biden took a very different view of the war than the Defense Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The competitive leaking, sniping and bickering that pervaded the review worsened the climate of command and undoubtedly left Gen. McChrystal and his team unnerved.
The third, and fatal, error came in Mr. Obama's West Point speech in December. He put his own ambivalence about the Afghan war on public view and then announced that he would begin a withdrawal in July 2011. This blunder demoralized his own side while elating the enemy and encouraging Afghan friends and neutrals to scramble to make their accommodations while they could.
But none of this excuses the substance or the tone of the words spoken by Gen. McChrystal and his staff. The poor judgment shown in political-military matters calls into question their broader competence to wage an acutely difficult war....
After Gen. McChrystal's understandable but somewhat impolitic address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies last fall, the message from Washington was clear: Stay mum. In this business one deserves one mistake—and this second mistake is far, far worse than the first....
There are two lessons here. For Mr. Obama it is the imperative of taking charge of this war and owning it—reshaping the team waging it, and communicating a resolve that, alas, one doubts he actually feels. Failing that, he owes it to the soldiers and civilians we have sent there to liquidate the war and accept the consequences for our country and the region....
In wartime, generals become public heroes. In some cases—in Stanley McChrystal's—they really may be heroes. But that does not change the fundamental imperative of maintaining order and discipline. And if doing so means relieving a hero of command, so be it".
Eliot A. Cohen, "Why McChrystal Has to Go," 23 June, 2010 in www.wsj.com.
"Nine days he [General MacArthur] perpetrated a major act of sabotage of a Government operation....After reading the statement I shared his sense of outrage. It can be described only as defiance of the Chiefs of Staff, sabotage of an operation of which he had been informed, and insubordination of the grossest sort to his Commander-in-Chief."
Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department, 1969. pp. 518-519.
Professor Cohen is correct: it is dispiriting to read General McChrystal and his staff's infantile, vulgar, nay mauvais ton comments about his superiors and colleagues. In print no less. And, while one is aware of the fact that it is virtually impossible to expect (on this side of the Atlantic at least --- unfortunately) for military leaders to be possessed of the political and personal sophistication of say Field-Marshal Lord Alexander (the younger son of the Earl of Caledon) and Field-Marshal Lord Carver (the direct descendant of the Marquess of Wellesley [the older brother of the Duke of Wellington]), that does not obviate the fact that someone in General McChrystal position needs to be possessed of a certain level of political, diplomatic and social intelligence. Based upon the comments in the interview, one is scarcely able to believe that the General has these needed qualities. On the other hand, as the always intelligent and wise, Leslie Gelb notes, having dismissed one Commander in the Afghanistan theatre last year, it is less than sensible & intelligent to dismiss another one year later. Especially for reasons which are less than substantive (see: Leslie Gelb, "General McChrystal's Screw-up," 23 June 2010, in www.dailybeast.com). Need one to add that as not only American Commander-in-Chief (hereafter C-in-C) in Afghanistan but also NATO C-in-C, that nominally at least the firing of McChrystal is not merely a domestic American issue, but one that is supposed to involve the entire alliance? A concern that singularly fails to resonate in any of the discussions of this subject on this side of the Atlantic. In addition to which, it is apparently a fact that the General is the only member of the triumvirate who are in charge of American policy in Afghanistan (McChrystal, Ambassador Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke) who has tolerable relations with the Afghan President Karzai. Not surprisingly both NATO headquarters in Brussels and Karzai himself have indicated that they want McChrystal to stay in his post (for all this see: James Blitz, "NATO warns on McChrystal dismissal," 23 June 2010, in www.ft.com & Daniel Korski, "General Concern," 23 June 2010, www.spectator.co.uk).
Well regardless of the above concerns General McChrystal has been forced to resign. Succeeded by his superior (in every sense) General David Petraeus, the American administration has to an extent limited the fall-out of of this entire debacle. Oddly enough the upshot is (based upon Petraeus' recent public comments) that the infamous 2011 deadline for a re-evaluation of the American 'surge' strategy has probably been pushed back into 2012 at the earliest. Since au fond Petraeus is as committed to the Afghanistan War as his ex-subordinate. Having fired two C-in-C's in Afghanistan in the last two years, one rather doubts that the American President has both the courage and the political capital to fire a third in as many years. As Spencer Ackerman argued today in the aftermath of the firing:
"Today Obama clarified what July 2011 means — somewhat. It means what Gen. Petraeus, his new commander, told the Senate he supports: not a “race for the exits,” but a “conditions-based,” open-ended transition. If that still sounds unclear, it’s because the policy itself is unclear. But by placing Petraeus at the helm, it means that 2012 will probably look more like right now, in terms of troop levels and U.S. troops fighting, than anything Biden prefers. That is, unless Petraeus and Obama come to a consensus that conditions on the ground necessitate more rapid withdrawals. Think of the deadline as getting deliberately blurrier. Tom Ricks called his last book about Petraeus “The Gamble.” It’s sequel time.
The strategy is supposed to undergo a review in December. Don’t expect that review to be so substantial. Petraeus will only be in theater for a few months. While he may not want to launch his own strategy review, he’ll surely want to keep his options open, and will be able to argue that the extraordinary conditions that put him back in charge of a war will necessitate that delay. Make no mistake: This is Obama intensifying his strategy. That’s the major change that has emerged after Gen. McChrystal’s unexpected self-immolation".
Spencer Ackerman, "With Petraeus Pick, Obama clarifies His Afghanistan strategy,"
23 June 2010 in www.washingtonindependent.com.
Lastly for the historical record, I would just like to point out, that there is no, repeat no, similarity in the behavior of General McChrystal and that of General Douglas MacArthur, in 1950-1951. Whatever else one may say of this horrible interview in Rolling Stone magazine, it does not in any substantive fashion attempt to subvert existing American policy. Nor indeed does either the General or his subordinates even criticize the American President. Whereas of course as then Secretary of State Dean Acheson clearly delineates, General MacArthur's firing was due to his rank refusal to follow government policy and not once but on many occasions. There is nothing in General McChrystal's record which comes close. All the more reason for regarding the dismissal as something purely about the petty politics of Presidential amour propre. In its own fashion as mauvais ton as those idiotic remarks in Rolling Stone.