Hell hath no fury like a President criticized. Beginning with George Washington, America’s had a tradition of civilian control of the military, and it is a good tradition. However, even in Washington’s day, several of Washington’s generals were openly critical of the leadership of the man who played a large part in establishing America as an independent nation.
The difference is that, in those days, there were no Rolling Stone reporters following you around. Worse, the Rolling Stone reporters were trapped with McChyrstal in Europe when the volcano made it impossible to fly back to the U.S. Much of the information in the Rolling Stone article comes from military aides to McChrystal, who also must have missed the lesson on military etiquette.
Make no mistake though, General McChrystal was firing out of both barrels when he exhibited a great deal of contempt for the political team running the Afghanistan war. According to the Rolling Stone article, General McChrystal fired broadsides at a green President who had little notion of war fighting during their first face to face meeting. A “photo-op” was the way a McChrystal aide characterized the meeting.
The derision of the war fighters was impolitic, too, in describing top Afghan emissary Holbrooke as a man frightened of being fired. Apparently, the military men found suspect the plan of integrating the Taliban into the Karzai government. Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat John Kerry also came in for criticism for dropping into Afghanistan and then leaving without penetrating the dense web of complex problems the military faces.
Certainly, the issue of different political ideologies in the White House team had undermined a unified approach. President Obama’s nearly year long delay in deciding to send more troops for the Afghan surge likely made the military task more difficult as Taliban and Al Qaeda forces had time to entrench themselves. President Obama’s announcement of a July 2010 pull-out has also been a bone of contention between military and civilian leaders. Al Qaeda and Taliban forces would likely respond by avoiding frontal contact with U.S. military forces, keying up the propaganda war by attacks designed to kill civilians, and waiting it out until NATO forces leave. If there is a Vietnam parallel, the real congruency is with the a priori announced strategy of withdrawal, and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government.
At the level of general officers, most military men have learned diplomacy in the style exhibited by General Petraeus. McChrystal has little of the diplomatic touch, apparently, which is not entirely to his discredit. He’s a war fighter, a man who sleeps and eats little, and runs 9 miles a day, and has a taut, gaunt look like that of a man who is happy to be in the trenches (or the Afghani equivalent) with his fingers on the trigger of an M-4.
McChrystal criticized Carl Eikenberry essentially as a man who covers his *ss and has a ready made rationale for failure in Afghanistan. About Obama military advisor General Jones, McChyrstal said he was a man stuck in the 1980s.
Things are not looking good for McChrystal, nor for Afghanistan. Enemies of the war effort, which has essentially become a U.S. operation, will capitalize on the split between Obama’s anti-war faction and those who point out undeniable successes against the enemy. Now is not the time for summer soldiers and sunshine patriots, the line goes, but these are Afghanistan’s dark days, made darker by a lack of restraint on the part of a general. But the opportunity for unity may be snatched from the jaws of defeat if the President can show imaginative leadership, finding an honorable presidential way to go forward without discarding the gains which have been made.
“What were you thinking, McChrystal? A profile in Rolling Stone Magazine? Of all places… You might as well join a march with Code Pink,” the President could say.
General McChrystal has apologized to everyone except President Obama, and some are reading that to mean that he will resign. The President has summoned McChrystal for a White House meeting tomorrow. Andrea Mitchell went so far as to exclaim in her usual hysterical rapture that McChrystal’s behavior amounted to a “violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” As if she would know….
In fact, McChrystal should have contained his soldier’s grumbling within the confines of his own staff. But let’s not forget that our own American Revolution benefitted from the candor and freedom of thought of its military leaders. And let’s not forget that the Continental Army and Militia leaders were critical of the military pretensions of civilian leaders when their true expertise was in areas of law or in the manufacture of silk stockings. The War for American Independence would have been no less successful or acrimonious had Rolling Stone magazine interviewed the military men of the day.