What McChrystal really said

By , 22 June, 2010, 3 Comments

For several weeks, I have been working on a piece about civil-military relations, but this morning’s news about Stan McChrystal essentially preempts the story I wanted to tell.

In case you’ve missed it, McChrystal agreed to a profile for Rolling Stone, a magazine whose non-arts coverage I usually find to be shrill and unscrupulous. But Michael Hastings, the reporter, did not need stridency to slam McChrystal–the general’s own words, those of his closest aides and advisors, and even of his soldiers, did that for him. In the piece, McChrystal and co. complain about the President’s lack of military knowledge coming into office, about the ‘interfering’ role played by the State Department’s Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, about the outdated thinking of ‘clown’ National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and about the ‘betrayal’ of the military by Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Vice-President Biden, both vocal opponents of McChrystal’s proposed surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the American rank-and-file in Afghanistan tell Hastings the surge isn’t working.
This afternoon, a furious Obama summoned McChrystal to Washington, and the punditocracy is abuzz over whether Obama will sack him. Technically speaking, what McChrystal has done is automatic grounds for a sacking. But giving McChrystal the boot may seriously compromise the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, a scheme the General developed and sold himself. Indeed, both those who think McChrystal is gone, and those who think he survives, agree that the President still backs the surge. They make their predictions about McChrystal based on whether they think the surge can go on without him.
I’m not sure it should. In his write-up on the piece, Spencer Ackerman characterizes McChrystal’s comments as petty character assaults, not substantive critiques of his civilian counterparts. After all, says Ackerman, McChrystal ‘won’ the policy debate last fall. Whatever views the civvies had then should be irrelevant now, and consequently the personal element–McChrystal’s lingering grudges–should remain. I’m not sure how you reach that conclusion, unless like Ackerman, you think the civvies were wrong on the substance. If, like me, you’re inclined to think Obama made the wrong choice on Afghanistan, then it certainly seems like McChrystal is slamming legitimate policy viewpoints, not just the people who espouse them.
More specifically, he is slamming their right to critique him. This, to my mind, is a pretty serious offense reflecting a fundamental problem in American policy circles. Somehow, our public discourse about ‘foreign policy,’ which should cover everything from international trade to development assistance, has been replaced by public discourse about ‘national security policy,’ which covers a narrower set of essentially military issues. To the extent that political or economic issues matter, they are linked up with security concerns. As a result, military leaders–ie the Pentagon–have assumed gradual responsibility for non-military issues that the State Department used to oversee. Hillary Clinton personally backed the McChrystal on the surge, but most of her underlings–or at least those I met in the embassies of South Asia–opposed it, and were especially furious at Clinton for endorsing it without taking their views into account. Karl Eikenberry is just one of many in the diplo world who think that the State Department has been hijacked by the DoD.
The most vocal proponent of this interpretation is, surprisingly, a veteran: Matthew Hoh, who served in the Iraq war before taking an advisory role in the State Department, first in Iraq, then in Afghanistan. Hoh resigned last year, and has been on the lecture circuit since critiquing the logic behind the COIN approach McChrystal has taken. I’ll tackle the critique–along with my own current views on Af-Pak–in a future post.
But when I met with Hoh two weeks ago, the thing that struck me most was his argument as to why Obama would make such a (to Hoh) wrong choice: “We have a deference problem when it comes to the military.” In particular, career politicians and bureaucrats of the Vietnam generation, those who could have served but didn’t, have a chip on their shoulder and feel an obligation to prove their worth by supporting whatever the military does. Younger civvies, meanwhile, have an aversion to learning enough about military strategy that comes from growing up in peacetime and leaves them without the knowledge to develop their own views. “Members of Congress,” says Hoh, “are like those parents who buy booze for their children so they can seem cool.”
The flip side of the deference to the military we see from civilian leaders is the sense, oozing from the McChrystal piece, that military leaders now feel entitled to manage the affairs of both Defense and State. How else would they justify calling half the civilian leaders with responsibility for Afghanistan traitors and worse for disagreeing with them? That’s not simply an attack on their character that McChrystal is making. It’s a substantive claim that the role of diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians is to facilitate the military’s ideas, to do their bidding. If Obama doesn’t fire McChrystal he will implicitly be endorsing that view. And that terrifies me.
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3 Responses {+}
  • smw

    This is a really incisive reading of the situation to date. Like everyone else, I'm very curious to see if McChrystal will get the boot, and I look forward to your next analysis.

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Thanks Selma. Glad you like.

  • smw

    So now we know. Same old, same old, and the never-ending war never ends. Orwell had it figured out in 1948.

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