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.

A population unhygienic in its habits, sorely weakened and debilitated by disease, inclined to all manner of religious bigotry and fanatacism, condemned by the tenets of the most widespread faith to keep a full half of the population--namely, the feminine half--confined and excluded for the productive efforts of society by a system of indefinite house arrest, deeply affected--and bound to be affected--by the psychological habits of pastoral life, which has ever been at variance with the agricultural and industrial civilization.

This people has now come just enough into contact with Western life so that its upper class has a thirst for many things which can be obtained only in the West. Suspicious and resentful of the British, they would be glad to obtain these things from us. They would be glad to use us as a foil for the British, as an escape from the restraints which the British place upon them.

If we give them these things, we can perhaps enjoy a momentary favor on the part of those interested in receiving them. But to the extent that we give them, we weaken British influence, and we acquire native politicians. If they then begin to do things which are not in our interests, which affect the world situation in a ways unfavorable to our security, and if the British are unable to restrain them, we then have ourselves at least in part to blame and it is up to us to take the appropriate measures.

Are we willing to bear this responsibility? I know--and every realistic American knows--that we are not. Our government is technically incapable of conceiving and promulgating a long-term consistent policy towards areas remote from its territory. Our actions in the field of foreign affairs are the convulsive reactions of politicians to an internal political life dominated by vocal minorities.

Those few Americans who remember something of the pioneer life of their own country will find it hard to view these deserts without a pang of interest and excitement at the possibilities for reclamation and economic development. If trees once grew here, could they not grow again? If rains once fell, could they not again be attracted from the inexhaustible resources of nature? Could not climate be altered, disease eradicated?

If they are seeking an escape from reality, such Americans may even pursue these dreams and enter upon the long and stony road which could lead to their fruition. But if they are willing to recall the sad state of soil conservation in their own country, the vast amount of social improvement to be accomplished at home, and the inevitable limitations on the efficacy of our type of democracy in the field of foreign affairs--then they will restrain their excitement at the silent, expectant possibilities in the Middle Eastern deserts, and will return, like disappointed but dutiful children, to the sad deficiencies and problems of their native land. [emphasis added]

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)

A pretty bleak picture you paint, but isn't there a brighter side to all this.

A. Rory Stewart says things have improved in Kabul, and the surge should be given its chance.

B. The alternatives never looked good either.

C. The Afghans, if one can believe people like Dr. Abduallah, believe in their government, and believe the surge can succeed.

Posted by: Russell at June 28, 2010 11:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Two comments
1. On Obama he's actually achieved a quite a lot given the complete non cooperation of the Republicans and a political system where now apparently you need 60 votes to pass anything in the senate......should the boot ever be on the other foot Republicans need to remember this. The simple fact is our political system is structured to produce sclerosis....there have been periods when compromise, the mothers milk of democracy, was a feature of our system but those are long past. It's simply dysfunctional and you have to judge what's been achieved against that background.....which brings me to:
2. Afghanistan and what are Obama's long term goals there. I believe he wants out but given the toxic environment described above he couldn't make a unilateral decision to start shutting it all down when strategies were discussed 6-9 months ago. Instead he gave Petraeus and McChrystal more or less what they wanted and said show me being fairly confident they would not pull it off. All the time this was going to take place against a background of a shift in the political wind on Afghanistan in this country. It's alreadlly happened in most of the rest of the NATO alliance where there are substantial majorities for pulling the plug (Britain 72%) which mean their govts can't long sustain participation. In this country our pride and video game attitude to warfare when combined with an opposition that is only interested in opposing makes a public opinion shift more difficult. Eventually there's going to be a tipping point and I suspect it's going to happen in the next 6-12 months. Already the media and blogosphere is alive with speculation about the merits of staying or leaving and this is all symptomatic of a shifting public debate. It's all rather similar to FDR not getting too far out ahead of public opinion. We'll see but somehow I think Obama is waiting tof the windshift and you may be underestimating him Greg!

Posted by: ottovbsvs at June 28, 2010 02:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, ottovbsvs, the area where a President has the most unconstrained power is ending U.S. military action. If this President has indeed concluded that the war is hopeless, and yet he agreed to increase the pace and volume at which the war is waged, with the unavoidable violent results, there is no way to spin it in a positive light. Let us hope hope that he is frank in notes of codolence sent to the familes of the fallen, and is explaining that their loved one had to die in combat, so as to increase the odds of passing health care reform.

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 02:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Even Mr. Kennan, as wise as he was, could not have come up with a less than awful solution to the problem of the world's most important energy source being in large measure located in a place with political, cultural, and religious histories like the Persian Gulf, discovered a decade or two before Hitler and Stalin butchered Europe, Jews in particular.

The Almighty's designs are mysterious indeed.

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 03:13 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Rory Stewart doesn't sound so optimistic lately..


Posted by: Lee Hartmann at June 28, 2010 03:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Will Allen at June 28, 2010 02:59 PM

" If this President has indeed concluded that the war is hopeless, and yet he agreed to increase the pace and volume at which the war is waged, with the unavoidable violent results, there is no way to spin it in a positive light......so as to increase the odds of passing health care reform."

.....boy the sanctimony drips.....since when was politics boche ball.....look at it in practical light. If I'm right, think about all the lives that will be saved as consequence of bringing this to an earlier conclusion than letting it drag on for another ten years as Bush allowed it to while he screwed around in Iraq.....some times good ends have to be achieved by low means....a good example is how FDR maneuvered Japan into a position where she had no option but to start a war.......and where's the remotest connection to healthcare?

Posted by: ottovbsvs at June 28, 2010 04:29 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 03:13 PM

"The Almighty's designs are mysterious indeed."

.......they are indeed. As Andrew Sullivan has observed, in retrospect the creation of the state of Israel in an an area that had been settled for millenia was probably a mistake and from it has flowed 65 years of terrorism, and regional wars and instability. Nothing we can do about it now but try and fix it.

Posted by: ottovbsvs at June 28, 2010 04:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You're right, but, on the 19th he said on NPR. "Mr. STEWART: I believe, still, that it was an error. I think having done it, we might as well stick with it and give it the year and a half, which the president set out. "

Posted by: Russell at June 28, 2010 05:09 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

ottovbsvs, I'm trying to speculate why a man would increase the volume and pace of a war which he believes can't be successfully waged. Please don't confuse your inability or unwillingness to employ logic with my alleged sanctimony. As of January 2008, George W. Bush's views with regard to Afghanistan became irrelevant. The policy we have in June 2010 has exactly nothing to do with what George W. Bush would have done had he been re-elected, so it is fatuous to critique our current President's decisions throught he prism of how much worse things would have been if the other guy hade been elected.

You asserted that President Obama wanted to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. You are in error when you state that he could not do so. He could, if he was willing to pay the political price. Thus, if we are to accept your assertion regarding Obama's views, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that President Obama has chosen to have people under his command die in combat, not for the purpose of winning a war, but rather to avoid having his political agenda suffer a decline in viability.

The FDR analogy with Japan is entirely inapt, in that FDR had concluded that war was inevitable, and was taking action which he believed woud increase the chance of victory. In contrast, you are positing that Obama belives the war is hopeless, but is yet prolonging our involvement in it.

Having visited the graves of relatives who have died in combat in our current war, I really don't need instruction from you regarding the differences between politics and lawn games.

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 06:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh, and whatever one thinks about what would have been the correct course of action in 1948, I'd avoid citing the views of a guy who has advocated that the U.S. impose a military solution to a conflict that involves a nation that likely has dozens of nuclear weapons, and can quickly make more.

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 06:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Posted by: Will Allen at June 28, 2010 06:03 PM

"The FDR analogy with Japan is entirely inapt, in that FDR had concluded that war was inevitable, and was taking action which he believed woud increase the chance of victory. In contrast, you are positing that Obama belives the war is hopeless, but is yet prolonging our involvement in it."

......Actually I'm positing exactly the opposite, namely that Obama is using a low means to bring it to a more rapid end in exactly the same way FDR used a low means to force Japan to start a war which resulted in the immediate death of around 2500 Americans.....and you need to learn to distinguish the difference between means, ends and circumstances

Posted by: ottovbsvs at June 29, 2010 08:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You need to grasp that the Commander in Chief has the power to end hostilities in weeks, not months or years, if he so desires. You need to grasp, once again, that what George W. Bush would have done does not establish the benchmark for what constitutes the meaning of "rapid".

Posted by: Will Allen at June 29, 2010 08:57 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Posted by: Will Allen at June 29, 2010 08:57 AM

once again you mix up ends, means and circumstances......nuance is clearly is not your thing anymore than it was Bush's .....if Clausewitz's dictum that war is a continuation of politics by other means then the reverse is surely true

Posted by: ottovbsvs at June 29, 2010 09:45 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

You may wish to consult a dictionary. "Nuance" is not a synonym for "dissemble".

Posted by: Will Allen at June 29, 2010 01:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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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