Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Special Comment re McChrystal:
The mission, not the man

Speculation’s all over the place as to the fate of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal made comments published in a masterful story in Rolling Stone magazine — comments that effectively (and sometimes astonishingly) called his ability to take orders into question, off-the-cuff, disrespectful locker-room remarks that amounted to insubordination. The punditburo hard by the NY/DC commute corridor is making its feelings known, and no doubt placing its bets.

Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC’s addictive and insightful “Countdown” program, weighed in last night with a “Special Comment,” calling for McChrystal, whom Rolling Stone dubbed “the Runaway General,” to be retained in his post.

The comments section of The Huffington Post has been instructive for tapping the range of insights of those favoring McChrystal’s dismissal (opposing Olbermann’s stance) and those who oppose it (in KO’s corner). Opinions have run strong pro and con (and have been refreshingly articulate in either direction):
Wickywoo: KO has it right. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. 
Lee323: The deeper question is whether the Commander in Chief and his staff can effectively work with military personnel who have no apparent qualms about publicly airing disdain for our constitutionally mandated civilian government's role as top in the chain of command. If the civilian government and the military are not working in concert, it's ludicrous to even be waging wars and risking American lives and resources in the first place. 
Cyoohoos: If our President doesn't fire this general, I think I will lose all respect for him. This person has essentially stated that he has NO INTENTION of winding down these operations in Afghanistan which is a rejection orders he received from his commander. The Pres. can no longer trust that McChrystal will lift a finger to do anything that would ensure that the US leave Afghanistan.

He's had two chances and his apologies are meaningless and his behavior hasn't changed. … these are the things that McChrystal is saying in PUBLIC. Just imagine what he's saying in private. this guy must go. Anything less is simply unacceptable.

Drjimmy72296: You could say the same thing about George Bush.

People who can't get the job done and make big messes shouldn't be rewarded with a chance to make the mess bigger. They should get fired.
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A happy intersection of world view, passions and politics has meant that, more often than not, I’m in agreement with The Keith, whose withering intelligence and savagely funny distillations of political and cultural issues have won me over most of the time in the past (when winning over was even necessary).

But this time, sadly, no. KO’s position, by way of his Special Comment last night, ultimately proposes that Obama send a reverberant message about the man — a message that says regardless of the internal dissension, keeping the man is what’s paramount. Gotta disagree, big guy.

What’s most important for President Obama at this crucial juncture in the Afghan war is to send a message about the mission – and how the mission won’t be held hostage by one man. Any one man. Not McChrystal, not Hamid Karzai, not even President Obama himself.

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The mission in Afghanistan is bigger than one man, even the man selected to direct it. It’s about the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans fighting and dying there on the behalf of a native government seemingly working against them, sent there by our government, representing a nation deeply divided about our presence there. It's about the multibillion-dollar burn rate this nation cannot sustain indefinitely.

The idea of implying that this is McChrystal’s mess and he needs to fix it suggests that it was McChrystal who started this war, or McChrystal who funded it, or that McChrystal has been central in the waging of that war, to the exclusion of anyone else. Letting McChrystal remain in charge of prosecuting a war when he has little or no faith in the civilian leadership whose orders he is obliged to obey sends terrible signals to numerous recipients.

It sends the wrong signal to our in-country enemy, the Taliban, illustrating in the vast public square how American credibility can be undermined by the Buck Turgidson hubris of a “runaway general,” and how the discipline of our military forces is susceptible to internal compromise — just the mindset the Taliban needs to fight American forces and those from NATO in the summer “fighting season” that’s heating up now.

It sends the wrong message to our allies, plainly intimating that when push come to shove, on pivotal military matters the President of the United States is nothing more or less than a figurehead, a ceremonial puppet obliged to dance to the tune of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a maverick commander with few manners and a mind of his own.

It sends a terrible signal to our armed forces, suggesting like nothing else can that the chain of command can be corrupted with bad attitude and impolitic swagger, and that there’s no price to pay for such insubordination. If the chain of command means anything, it has to mean something now.

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And keeping McChrystal on says the wrong thing to the president’s supporters. More and more, as reflected in polls and news reports, there’s been discontent from Obama’s progressive base, an airing of the suspicion that the president may be nothing more than a tool for Wall Street, big business and the lobbyists. Keeping a general in place when he won’t pursue the mission of pacifying the Afghani people, assisting the Afghan government and empowering the Afghan military according to White House policy reinforces the still-nebulous but increasingly audible narrative that Obama is feckless, dithering, unwilling to make a shift when one’s clearly called for.

The wing of Obama’s most loyal supporters is becoming as skeptical as other less ardent Obama supporters have already been for a while. They’re still stung by his inaction on pursuing investigation into the spectrum of illegalities under the Bush administration, from the U.S. attorneys scandal to warrantless wiretapping of American citizens to a policy of torture of foreign nationals.

For them, keeping McChrystal in place, despite the short-term punitive satisfaction to be derived from it, means committing again to the status quo of prosecuting this war, a center we already know can’t hold. For Obama’s most ardent supporters, that’s another reason for doubt and concern. For those other supporters, less passionate and more skeptical to start with, it’s one more reason for walking out of the big tent altogether.

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"Which is more useful to this President and this nation right now?" Olbermann asked. "A martyred ex-General, around which an irresponsible and potentially dangerous opposition can coalesce? Or a spared and humbled General, surely no worse than any potential replacement, whose retention can recalculate the political formula ... without a drop of blood, or a drop of tears, being shed?"

This frankly ascribes too much importance to the general as personality, rather than the general as ultimately a solidier, a functionary of the government, and as such nothing more or less than a military means to a geopolitical end. And it concedes way too much leverage to the spectre of those “irresponsible and potentially dangerous” extremists KO describes ominously, in a hazy scenario that somehow feels conjured from “Seven Days in May” (Think: Fredric March: Barack Obama; Burt Lancaster: Stan McChrystal).

Like his predecessor, McChrystal is eminently replaceable by any one of a number of qualified candidates waiting in the wings, all of them prepared to sign to what the civilian leadership of U.S. armed forces have decided is in the nation’s best interests. They’re presumably ready to do the job as ordered.

So be it. There’s a fine line between rewarding insubordination and demanding that insubordination somehow self-correct itself, auto-transform into something other than insubordination ... while it remains in charge.

There’s a cause and effect at work: When heads roll, they roll downhill. That’s the gravitational force of the chain of command. McChrystal has ventured past that line, not once but at least twice. There’s a basket for heads like his.

It’s time for a change – not Change as a campaign meme, but change as a geopolitical and military necessity. Change that we, our armies and our allies can believe … maybe even come to believe in. That’s a change worth making; that’s a chance — an opportunity — worth taking.

Image credits: McChrystal: Jerry Morrison, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Obama and McChrystal: Pete Souza/The White House. Seven Days in May poster art: © 1964 Paramount Pictures.

11:40 A.M. From The Associated Press:
WASHINGTON – President Obama ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Wednesday, saying that his scathing published remarks about administration officials undermine civilian control of the military and erode the needed trust on the president's war team.

Obama named McChrystal's direct boss — Gen. David Petraeus — to take over the troubled 9-year-old war in Afghanistan. He asked the Senate to confirm Petraeus for the new post "as swiftly as possible."

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