June 25, 2010
The McChrystal Follies
Amidst the reams of commentary on the General McChrystal fiasco, I found this snippet from George Will worth noting:
It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal's disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military's can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux.
I would echo Mr. Will's observation. In Afghanistan we are enmeshed in a strategic blunder on par or worse than the Iraq debacle (incidentally, for those who have declared the Mesopotamian morass a victory, here's some level-headed reportage worth a gander lest we delude ourselves Dubya (or Petraeus, about whom more below) erected a Babylonian utopia in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf, Basra, Kirkuk, and Mosul. As for Will's Vietnam analogy, we might beware the perils of too easy historical analogizing, but with the Afghan war nearing a decade, it's certainly not an unfair comparison. I would add the following commentary on the McChrystal episode, piggy-backing on Will's apercu:
• It is profoundly sad that it is only McChrystal and crew's sophomoric dishing (President Obama "uncomfortable and intimidated" amidst all the beribboned military brass, Vice President Joseph "Bite-Me" Biden, the "clown" at the NSC, Dick Holbrooke, he of the scatological E-mails not worth opening, Karl Eikenberry, merely covering his behind for the history books, and, bien sur, the so lame and "gay" French), which collectively conspired to belatedly cause a genuine kerfuffle over matters Afghanistan. This is what has the print commentariat and cable pygmies aflutter, not that young Americans are dying in increasingly large numbers for a futile misson devoid now of even a smidgen of strategic sense? A sad testament, to be sure, on a variety of levels not worth detaining the reader with here. Suffice it to say empires die during periods of such obscene myopia.
• Equally, if not more disheartening, are that McChrystal's 'legacy issues' (to use a phrase in vogue) are evidently less concerning to most than the aforementioned juvenile aspersions from a liquored up gaggle at a tourist-trap Irish pub in Paris. That it has taken a young free-lancer from Rolling Stone to help sketch out the fundamental futility of the Afghan mission is, among other things, rather an indictment of a journalistic class increasingly propagandistic (whether purposefully or through languorous cluelessness might make an interesting thesis topic). But beyond this, McChrystal's prior indiscretions are arguably even more serious, to include presiding over such penal exuberances as Camp Nama ("No Blood, No Foul"!), or say, the parsimonious amount of information doled out up-front around the Pat Tillman episode. Are we to be surprised by the entrenched contemptuousness and disdain of civilian authority surrounding this physically courageous, but profoundly flawed, General? But no, warning signs are ignored, and instead, such conduct paves the way for promotions these days, or alternatively, audible yawns among our titular arbiters of appropriate conduct.
• Obama had to fire McChrystal (Eliot Cohen, whom I rarely agree with it, put it well in the Journal recently), though for a moment I'll confess I had to wonder if Barack had more Adlai Stevenson than Harry Truman in him (albeit a decision not to relieve him of command of the Afghan adventure would inevitably have been cloaked in 'team of rivals' soi disant self-confidence). This said, while Obama will doubtless garner some points for "decisiveness" and such banalities now, so that we must steel ourselves for a mini-season of such articles (charitably at best a stretch, as the BP debacle, watered-down financial sector reform and 'Runaway General-out, Petraeus-In' hardly constitute Churchillian fare, Sangerian stenography and self-preservationist Rahmian boosterism apart).
• The season of COIN-on-steroids beckons, as the think-tank apparatchiks dutifully chronicle whether Petraeus can turn Marjah from "bleeding ulcer" to Hamiltonian hamlet, before charging Kandahar and enlightening locals how to better run their jirgas, with the civil procedure treatises parachuted in. Apologies for the sarcasm, but my point is this: the war in Afghanistan, already Obama's, is now exponentially so. Having now demoted the American architect of what passes for modern-day counter-insurgency theory ("Government-In-A-Box"!) , as well the storied 'surge' proponent from Iraq, from CENTCOM to the field (in actuality, however, it will be increasingly perceived as a promotion, with the war elevated in stature too, and per the Washington echo-chamber, the 'war on terror'--or whatever moniker du jour--largely in Petreaus' hands), the die has now been well cast for this ill-fated Afghan fiasco to drift along at least through Obama's first term. Put differently, with the gloried Petraeus at the helm, we're now all-in in Afghanistan. And for what, there are perhaps, per Leon Panetta, 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in the entire country, even fewer perhaps, and we have 100,000 or so men nation-building there? (For thoughts on why I view the Afghanistan mission as devoid of real strategic purpose, see for instance here).
• I stumbled on this letter of George Kennan's while re-reading his excellent memoirs, as he passes through Iraq in June of 1944, I believe on his way to Moscow:
So much for the handicaps; what of the possibilities of service in Baghdad? A country in which man's selfishness and stupidity have ruined almost all natural productivity, where vegetation can survive only among the banks of the great rivers which traverse its deserts, where climate has become unfavorable to human health and vigor.
And imagine what this singular American diplomat would have made of Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, and coming out of our Great Recession (with a double-dip a real and present danger post the orgy of stimuli, bail-outs, so-called quantitative easing etc.)!
Moving beyond all the immediate events of last week, we are left to reckon with President Obama too. He said in his statement relieving General McChrystal something to the effect that war is bigger than one man, and he is right. So is the future of countries, polities, and empires. In the recent election, he defeated a Senatorial baron and fabled war hero as an African-American junior Senator fresh from a stint as a community organizer, an amazing feat for the history books, to be sure. Why? People were desperate for change, deep in their guts, after the catastrophic bungles wrought by George W. Bush. And yet, have we gotten said change? Do those who listened to his speech in Cairo still believe in it (assuming they ever did, though certainly there were some elevated expectations), a year or so out? Those who felt the 'moral Chernobyl' of Guantanamo required urgent closure of the detention facility? Those who hungered for financial reform that went after the root causes, such as shoddy underwriting and unmoored leverage, rather than the chaotic sausage-making emitting from Barney Frank's office? Or a bona fide restoration of the letter and spirit of habeas corpus, against the corrosive erosions of 'prolonged' detention, and so on.
Of course, Obama was dramatically, astoundingly even, better than the alternative, who'd have had us warring in Teheran and Tbilisi by now, with Sarah Palin regaling us with discourses about off-shore drilling job creation initiatives. But for some who held out the promise for more profound transformation, we are left with the underwhelming feeling, as Edward Luce put it a few weeks back in the FT, that a 'new and improved' stamp was simply affixed on the same fundamental narrative, no? A pity, for him, for the country, indeed, for the entire international community. Perhaps he is wiser than us, playing his cards and biding his time, being careful to secure a second term, and than wowing doubters with a more historic, transformative agenda. But I smell too much of a cautious, deferential institutionalist in him. In short, the man's story has been great, but the man may not be great himself.
After all, who serious can laud his approach to Afghanistan, with the almost dutifully subserviant default to a "surge", but one married to a supposed hard end-date for drawing-down, an awkwardly disjointed policy borne of a too long and divisive inter-agency review, with no one trusting the supposed end date for commencement of meaningful troop withdrawals regardless, especially with the ante upped with Petraeus now in. And if 'Government-In-A-Box' doesn't take root in Marjah and Kandahar (let alone the great one we have in Kabul, this one presumably specially gift-wrapped for us!), then what? Meantime, men are dying and our power is whittling away every day, as history increasingly occurs on other key stages far from this storied graveyard of empires where Obama, it seems, is essentially doubling-down, rather than seriously thinking of responsibly closing out this latest ill-fated chapter in American adventurism.Posted by Gregory at June 25, 2010 10:36 PM | TrackBack (0)
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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.
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