Commentary Magazine


Topic: Stanley McChrystal

McChrystal’s Take on Post-2014 Troop Levels

In his new memoir (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal), General Stanley McChrystal was careful not to criticize the Obama administration even though he arguably got a raw deal from the president. Obama did not send him enough troops in 2009 (only 30,000 out of the 40,000 McChrystal thought necessary) and then fired him a year later after some of his aides (but not apparently the general himself) were caught by a Rolling Stone reporter making disparaging, bantering remarks about senior administration figures.

McChrystal is a little more forthcoming in this interview with New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. For instance, Gordon asked him about Obama’s plan to send only 30,000 troops and get the other 10,000 from allies–did those 10,000 ever materialize? McChrystal: “I was concerned about the allied 10,000, and at the end of the day I’m not sure how many of those came. … I know there was an intent to get the full 10,000.”

Read More

In his new memoir (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal), General Stanley McChrystal was careful not to criticize the Obama administration even though he arguably got a raw deal from the president. Obama did not send him enough troops in 2009 (only 30,000 out of the 40,000 McChrystal thought necessary) and then fired him a year later after some of his aides (but not apparently the general himself) were caught by a Rolling Stone reporter making disparaging, bantering remarks about senior administration figures.

McChrystal is a little more forthcoming in this interview with New York Times military correspondent Michael Gordon. For instance, Gordon asked him about Obama’s plan to send only 30,000 troops and get the other 10,000 from allies–did those 10,000 ever materialize? McChrystal: “I was concerned about the allied 10,000, and at the end of the day I’m not sure how many of those came. … I know there was an intent to get the full 10,000.”

The entire interview is worth reading. but it’s especially notable for what McChrystal has to say about administration leaks that only a few thousand troops–or maybe none at all–will be left in Afghanistan after 2014: “We had 7,500 in Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 when I was first stationed there. And 7,500 wouldn’t do much, because by the time you had a pretty small headquarters at Bagram, you were running the airfield, you had some people starting to train A.N.S.F. (Afghan National Security Forces). … Pretty soon you don’t have much reach.”

Administration figures plotting to leave few if any U.S. troops would be well advised to ponder these words from a man who remains one of America’s most respected generals.

Read Less

The Unraveling of Seymour Hersh

The New Yorker’s investigative reporter Seymour Hersh seems to be unraveling. According to a story posted on Foreignpolicy.com, in a speech in Doha, Qatar, Hersh

delivered a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe here Monday expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

“Just when we needed an angry black man,” he began, his arm perched jauntily on the podium, “we didn’t get one.”

It quickly went downhill from there.

Blake Hounshell reports that Hersh, who is writing a book on what he calls the “Cheney-Bush years,” charged that U.S. foreign policy had been hijacked by a cabal of neoconservative “crusaders” in the former vice president’s office and now in the special operations community. “What I’m really talking about is how eight or nine neoconservative, radicals if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over,” he said of his forthcoming book. “It’s not only that the neocons took it over but how easily they did it — how Congress disappeared, how the press became part of it, how the public acquiesced.”

During his remarks, Hersh brought up the widespread looting that took place in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.’”

“That’s the attitude,” Hersh continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”

Hersh also alleged that General Stanley McChrystal, who headed Joint Special Operations Command before becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Admiral William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”

“Many of them are members of Opus Dei,” Hersh continued. “They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They seem themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”

“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins,” he continued. “They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”

These are the mutterings of a fevered, obsessive mind. His strange, conspiracy-plagued world is dominated by neo-conservatives and Opus Dei crusaders who are reliving the 13th century. Such writers now find a welcoming home at the New Yorker.

David Remnick must be so proud.

The New Yorker’s investigative reporter Seymour Hersh seems to be unraveling. According to a story posted on Foreignpolicy.com, in a speech in Doha, Qatar, Hersh

delivered a rambling, conspiracy-laden diatribe here Monday expressing his disappointment with President Barack Obama and his dissatisfaction with the direction of U.S. foreign policy.

“Just when we needed an angry black man,” he began, his arm perched jauntily on the podium, “we didn’t get one.”

It quickly went downhill from there.

Blake Hounshell reports that Hersh, who is writing a book on what he calls the “Cheney-Bush years,” charged that U.S. foreign policy had been hijacked by a cabal of neoconservative “crusaders” in the former vice president’s office and now in the special operations community. “What I’m really talking about is how eight or nine neoconservative, radicals if you will, overthrew the American government. Took it over,” he said of his forthcoming book. “It’s not only that the neocons took it over but how easily they did it — how Congress disappeared, how the press became part of it, how the public acquiesced.”

During his remarks, Hersh brought up the widespread looting that took place in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. “In the Cheney shop, the attitude was, ‘What’s this? What are they all worried about, the politicians and the press, they’re all worried about some looting? … Don’t they get it? We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. And when we get all the oil, nobody’s gonna give a damn.’”

“That’s the attitude,” Hersh continued. “We’re gonna change mosques into cathedrals. That’s an attitude that pervades, I’m here to say, a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command.”

Hersh also alleged that General Stanley McChrystal, who headed Joint Special Operations Command before becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Admiral William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, “are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.”

“Many of them are members of Opus Dei,” Hersh continued. “They do see what they’re doing — and this is not an atypical attitude among some military — it’s a crusade, literally. They seem themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They’re protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function.”

“They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins,” he continued. “They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”

These are the mutterings of a fevered, obsessive mind. His strange, conspiracy-plagued world is dominated by neo-conservatives and Opus Dei crusaders who are reliving the 13th century. Such writers now find a welcoming home at the New Yorker.

David Remnick must be so proud.

Read Less

Changing of the Ambassadorial Guard

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

With Richard Holbrooke’s death, questions will inevitably be asked about the fate of the post he held: Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The job was created expressly for him on the theory that Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”) were a related problem set that required the appointment of a high-level diplomatic coordinator to handle. The expectation was that Holbrooke would emerge as a dominant force in AfPak policy to rival the NATO commander in Kabul. It never happened. In fact, by the time of his death, it was generally agreed that Holbrooke had largely been marginalized in the policy process.

Part of this was due to some missteps on his part, but the larger problem was that there is not really much of a role for an “SRAP”: it was always a theory more than an actual job description. What we need are capable ambassadors in Islamabad and Kabul who can work closely with our military commander in Kabul, General Petraeus. The model  here is the special relationship that Petraeus had with Ryan Crocker, who was ambassador in Baghdad during the surge. Their close collaboration greatly maximized the impact of the surge forces and convinced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki  to make hard decisions to cut off sectarian actors.

There is nothing similar in Kabul. General Stanley McChrystal famously feuded with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, leading to the elevation of the NATO representative, Mark Sedwill, to become McChrystal’s chief diplomatic partner. Sedwill is still in place, and he is a capable and shrewd diplomat, but he would be the first to acknowledge that, as a Brit, he cannot speak with the authority of the United States. Eikenberry also remains in place and has not gotten into any public dust-ups with Petraeus, but he has also burned his bridges to Hamid Karzai with the leak of numerous cables deprecating the Afghan president.

By April, Eikenberry will have completed two years in the job — longer than many last in such pressure-packed assignments. The priority now should not be to replace Holbrooke as the SRAP but rather to ensure that Eikenberry’s replacement will perform in Crocker-like fashion. In this regard, I can’t help but note that Crocker has also previously served as ambassador to Pakistan, so he is familiar with the region. Is there, I wonder, some way that President Obama could lure him out of retirement (he is currently dean of the Bush School at Texas A&M) for one more assignment to work with Petraeus to rescue another troubled war effort?

Read Less

The New York Times Hearts WikiLeaks, Again

Once again the New York Times and other mainstream-media organs are lending their credibility and circulation — what they have left of it, anyway — to the massively irresponsible publication of secret U.S. military documents by an organization run by Julian Assange — an accused rapist, convicted hacker, and (by the Times‘s own account) all-around creep.

As with the previous data dump relating to the Afghan War, the documents about the Iraq War don’t tell us much that we didn’t already know in broad outline. While they may well compromise “sources and methods,” to use the intelligence terminology, they are hardly a revelation to anyone who has been paying attention.

Today’s headlines, for example, are about the deaths of Iraqi civilians caused mainly by other Iraqis but also, in some instances, by U.S. forces. Civilians dying in war: hardly a shocker. One of the few things that made me raise an eyebrow while reading the voluminous accounts this morning was this off-hand observation offered by Times reporters Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew Lehren in their first-page story:

The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.

How many bogus premises can you pack into a sentence? Start with the claim that killings of civilians were “a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country.” What evidence do Tavernise and Lehren have for this assertion, I wonder? My analysis, as someone who has been traveling to Iraq since 2003 and has followed the war closely, is that Iraqis turned against the American presence — to the extent that they did — primarily because U.S. troops did not do a better job of imposing law and order. The mainly accidental deaths caused by U.S. forces were, at most, a small contributing factor both to the tide of violence enveloping Iraq and to the disenchantment of the Iraqi people with the state of their country after Saddam Hussein’s downfall. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths were caused by Sunni and Shiite terrorists, as most Iraqis know perfectly well. The U.S. failure to check their excesses led to a souring of Iraqi opinion regarding the American troop presence but as soon as the U.S. reestablished order during the 2007-2008 “surge,” confidence in the U.S. military has soared. Ordinary Iraqis now trust U.S. forces more than their own — and for good reason, given some of the gruesome behavior attributed to Iraqi forces in the leaked documents.

Now we come to the second part of that sentence: the claim that this situation (which, as I pointed out, didn’t actually exist in Iraq) “is now being repeated in Afghanistan.” Have Tavernise and Lehren missed entirely the past year and a half of reporting out of Afghanistan by their own newspaper and many others? If they had been paying attention, they would know that Gen. Stanley McChrystal put a high priority on limiting civilian casualties caused by U.S. forces — even at the cost of sometimes exposing U.S. troops to greater risk. He succeeded in reducing civilian deaths precisely in order to not alienate the population. His directives on the careful use of force have largely been continued by Gen. Petraeus, who has been able to ramp up kinetic operations without causing a big spike in civilian casualties.

It’s rather ironic that in chronicling documents that are supposed to expand our knowledge about the Iraq War, Tavernise and Lehren actually detract from any public understanding of this vital subject.

Once again the New York Times and other mainstream-media organs are lending their credibility and circulation — what they have left of it, anyway — to the massively irresponsible publication of secret U.S. military documents by an organization run by Julian Assange — an accused rapist, convicted hacker, and (by the Times‘s own account) all-around creep.

As with the previous data dump relating to the Afghan War, the documents about the Iraq War don’t tell us much that we didn’t already know in broad outline. While they may well compromise “sources and methods,” to use the intelligence terminology, they are hardly a revelation to anyone who has been paying attention.

Today’s headlines, for example, are about the deaths of Iraqi civilians caused mainly by other Iraqis but also, in some instances, by U.S. forces. Civilians dying in war: hardly a shocker. One of the few things that made me raise an eyebrow while reading the voluminous accounts this morning was this off-hand observation offered by Times reporters Sabrina Tavernise and Andrew Lehren in their first-page story:

The documents also reveal many previously unreported instances in which American soldiers killed civilians — at checkpoints, from helicopters, in operations. Such killings are a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country, a situation that is now being repeated in Afghanistan.

How many bogus premises can you pack into a sentence? Start with the claim that killings of civilians were “a central reason Iraqis turned against the American presence in their country.” What evidence do Tavernise and Lehren have for this assertion, I wonder? My analysis, as someone who has been traveling to Iraq since 2003 and has followed the war closely, is that Iraqis turned against the American presence — to the extent that they did — primarily because U.S. troops did not do a better job of imposing law and order. The mainly accidental deaths caused by U.S. forces were, at most, a small contributing factor both to the tide of violence enveloping Iraq and to the disenchantment of the Iraqi people with the state of their country after Saddam Hussein’s downfall. The overwhelming majority of civilian deaths were caused by Sunni and Shiite terrorists, as most Iraqis know perfectly well. The U.S. failure to check their excesses led to a souring of Iraqi opinion regarding the American troop presence but as soon as the U.S. reestablished order during the 2007-2008 “surge,” confidence in the U.S. military has soared. Ordinary Iraqis now trust U.S. forces more than their own — and for good reason, given some of the gruesome behavior attributed to Iraqi forces in the leaked documents.

Now we come to the second part of that sentence: the claim that this situation (which, as I pointed out, didn’t actually exist in Iraq) “is now being repeated in Afghanistan.” Have Tavernise and Lehren missed entirely the past year and a half of reporting out of Afghanistan by their own newspaper and many others? If they had been paying attention, they would know that Gen. Stanley McChrystal put a high priority on limiting civilian casualties caused by U.S. forces — even at the cost of sometimes exposing U.S. troops to greater risk. He succeeded in reducing civilian deaths precisely in order to not alienate the population. His directives on the careful use of force have largely been continued by Gen. Petraeus, who has been able to ramp up kinetic operations without causing a big spike in civilian casualties.

It’s rather ironic that in chronicling documents that are supposed to expand our knowledge about the Iraq War, Tavernise and Lehren actually detract from any public understanding of this vital subject.

Read Less

What a New National Security Adviser Means for Foreign Policy

There has been much speculation in Washington circles about what it means that Tom Donilon has replaced James Jones as national security adviser. My hunch is: not much. I am not particularly persuaded by theories that hold that Donilon is more left-wing than Jones, and that he will clash more with senior generals. Jones, after all, was not exactly an outspoken advocate of the surge in Afghanistan (or for that matter in Iraq).

My sense is that a lot of the reason why he was appointed, even though Obama had barely met him, was so that Obama, who has no experience in military affairs, would have a high-profile retired officer on his staff who could with credibility stand up to the Pentagon. Jones made news in the summer of 2009 when he warned Gen. Stanley McChrystal that any further troop requests would be a “whisky tango foxtrot” moment for the White House. McChrystal asked for more troops anyway, because they were necessary. Most of his request wound up being granted not because of any decision made by Jones or by Donilon, who was then deputy national security adviser but widely seen as the power behind Jones’s throne. The ultimate call was made, unsurprisingly, by Barack Obama himself. That’s the way it always is and always has to be. The president is the “decider in chief.”

A good national security adviser can help marshal the information the boss needs to make good decisions and then help to implement them, but it is extremely rare for a national security adviser to be a major power in his or her own right. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski are notable exceptions to this rule, but there haven’t been many others — and it has been many decades since they were in power. Usually, the national security adviser is a reflection of the president. This was certainly the case with Condi Rice, who was widely faulted for not doing a better job of getting the Bush administration to march in lockstep behind the president’s policies. That failure was ultimately not hers but George W. Bush’s. It was he, after all, who appointed her and gave her the power she had — or didn’t have. So, too, it will be with Donilon. He is certainly not a foreign policy intellectual like Kissinger or Brzezinski; he is a consummate staffer. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what it means is that we shouldn’t expect much change from his appointment.

There has been much speculation in Washington circles about what it means that Tom Donilon has replaced James Jones as national security adviser. My hunch is: not much. I am not particularly persuaded by theories that hold that Donilon is more left-wing than Jones, and that he will clash more with senior generals. Jones, after all, was not exactly an outspoken advocate of the surge in Afghanistan (or for that matter in Iraq).

My sense is that a lot of the reason why he was appointed, even though Obama had barely met him, was so that Obama, who has no experience in military affairs, would have a high-profile retired officer on his staff who could with credibility stand up to the Pentagon. Jones made news in the summer of 2009 when he warned Gen. Stanley McChrystal that any further troop requests would be a “whisky tango foxtrot” moment for the White House. McChrystal asked for more troops anyway, because they were necessary. Most of his request wound up being granted not because of any decision made by Jones or by Donilon, who was then deputy national security adviser but widely seen as the power behind Jones’s throne. The ultimate call was made, unsurprisingly, by Barack Obama himself. That’s the way it always is and always has to be. The president is the “decider in chief.”

A good national security adviser can help marshal the information the boss needs to make good decisions and then help to implement them, but it is extremely rare for a national security adviser to be a major power in his or her own right. Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski are notable exceptions to this rule, but there haven’t been many others — and it has been many decades since they were in power. Usually, the national security adviser is a reflection of the president. This was certainly the case with Condi Rice, who was widely faulted for not doing a better job of getting the Bush administration to march in lockstep behind the president’s policies. That failure was ultimately not hers but George W. Bush’s. It was he, after all, who appointed her and gave her the power she had — or didn’t have. So, too, it will be with Donilon. He is certainly not a foreign policy intellectual like Kissinger or Brzezinski; he is a consummate staffer. There’s nothing wrong with that. But what it means is that we shouldn’t expect much change from his appointment.

Read Less

Burger King Is Back in Afghanistan

It’s too soon to tell whether the strategy Gen. Stanley McChrystal laid out will lead to the defeat of the Taliban. But we already know that his plans have been thwarted by an even more tenacious foe: Burger King. One of McChrystal’s symbolic actions — banning fast-food establishments from U.S. bases — has now been reversed by his successor. Gen Petraeus is quoted as saying: “These quality-of-life programs remain important to soldiers for stress relief and therefore enhancing military readiness.” It is a decision that, I am sure, will be widely welcomed, by troops who look to break up the monotony of the DFAC (dining facility).

The downside is that supplying all those establishments can strain supply lines, which, as we are seeing in Pakistan, are a major vulnerability for U.S. forces. That’s something I noted back in 2006 in a column from Iraq, headlined: “Our enemies aren’t drinking lattes.” However, the real issue isn’t Green Beans or Burger King. It’s the creation in the middle of a war zone of giant forward-operating bases with tens of thousands of residents (many of them civilian contractors) who must be kept fed and supplied and whose contributions to the war effort may be marginal. The presence of a few fast food joints doesn’t have much of an impact on logistics requirements, one way or the other.

Gen. Petraeus may be allowing the fast-food joints to reopen but he is also keenly aware that the war won’t be won by locking troops away on mega-FOBs with all their amenities; he is continuing his predecessor’s policy of pushing more units to live in small outposts in Spartan conditions, where hot showers are in short supply, much less Whoppers. Thus, on what really counts, there is considerable continuity between McChrystal and Petraeus.

It’s too soon to tell whether the strategy Gen. Stanley McChrystal laid out will lead to the defeat of the Taliban. But we already know that his plans have been thwarted by an even more tenacious foe: Burger King. One of McChrystal’s symbolic actions — banning fast-food establishments from U.S. bases — has now been reversed by his successor. Gen Petraeus is quoted as saying: “These quality-of-life programs remain important to soldiers for stress relief and therefore enhancing military readiness.” It is a decision that, I am sure, will be widely welcomed, by troops who look to break up the monotony of the DFAC (dining facility).

The downside is that supplying all those establishments can strain supply lines, which, as we are seeing in Pakistan, are a major vulnerability for U.S. forces. That’s something I noted back in 2006 in a column from Iraq, headlined: “Our enemies aren’t drinking lattes.” However, the real issue isn’t Green Beans or Burger King. It’s the creation in the middle of a war zone of giant forward-operating bases with tens of thousands of residents (many of them civilian contractors) who must be kept fed and supplied and whose contributions to the war effort may be marginal. The presence of a few fast food joints doesn’t have much of an impact on logistics requirements, one way or the other.

Gen. Petraeus may be allowing the fast-food joints to reopen but he is also keenly aware that the war won’t be won by locking troops away on mega-FOBs with all their amenities; he is continuing his predecessor’s policy of pushing more units to live in small outposts in Spartan conditions, where hot showers are in short supply, much less Whoppers. Thus, on what really counts, there is considerable continuity between McChrystal and Petraeus.

Read Less

Why So Few David Petraeuses?

Renny McPherson, a former Marine who is now a student at Harvard Business School, raises a good question in the Boston Globe: Why isn’t the military producing more David Petraeuses? That is, commanders who are skilled at the highest level of command where the job is more about politics, diplomacy, and communication than it is about tactical maneuvering on the battlefield. The fact that Petraeus was appointed as Stanley McChrystal’s successor in Afghanistan, which required him to take a step down in the military hierarchy, is a sign of how few generals we have capable of doing the job.

“A large contributor to this failure,” McPherson writes, “is the military’s inflexible system of promotion, which can actively discourage young officers from getting the mind-expanding, challenging experiences that could turn them into potent generals.”

McPherson was involved in interviewing 37 “top military leaders,” who “reported that most beneficial experiences — sustained international experience, civilian graduate education, and taking on special opportunities out of the military mainstream — were the very ones that they felt discouraged from pursuing.” That is a very big problem because of the shift that McPherson rightly identifies:

Over the course of the 20th century, the United States became the dominant world power by advancing the technology of warfare. Now the information revolution, recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism have shown that an expanded set of skills is required of our top officers. Today we need military leaders who can process the ever-larger amounts of information coming at them and who can communicate more dexterously up, down, and across; they also must be adept at dealing with nonmilitary institutions and quick to learn foreign cultures.

Petraeus is hardly alone in having the skills needed to tackle such challenges; General Ray Odierno has displayed much of the same skill set. But few others have, and that poses a real problem for the future — one that the Pentagon leadership needs to address as urgently as it addresses the future of expensive procurement programs.

Renny McPherson, a former Marine who is now a student at Harvard Business School, raises a good question in the Boston Globe: Why isn’t the military producing more David Petraeuses? That is, commanders who are skilled at the highest level of command where the job is more about politics, diplomacy, and communication than it is about tactical maneuvering on the battlefield. The fact that Petraeus was appointed as Stanley McChrystal’s successor in Afghanistan, which required him to take a step down in the military hierarchy, is a sign of how few generals we have capable of doing the job.

“A large contributor to this failure,” McPherson writes, “is the military’s inflexible system of promotion, which can actively discourage young officers from getting the mind-expanding, challenging experiences that could turn them into potent generals.”

McPherson was involved in interviewing 37 “top military leaders,” who “reported that most beneficial experiences — sustained international experience, civilian graduate education, and taking on special opportunities out of the military mainstream — were the very ones that they felt discouraged from pursuing.” That is a very big problem because of the shift that McPherson rightly identifies:

Over the course of the 20th century, the United States became the dominant world power by advancing the technology of warfare. Now the information revolution, recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism have shown that an expanded set of skills is required of our top officers. Today we need military leaders who can process the ever-larger amounts of information coming at them and who can communicate more dexterously up, down, and across; they also must be adept at dealing with nonmilitary institutions and quick to learn foreign cultures.

Petraeus is hardly alone in having the skills needed to tackle such challenges; General Ray Odierno has displayed much of the same skill set. But few others have, and that poses a real problem for the future — one that the Pentagon leadership needs to address as urgently as it addresses the future of expensive procurement programs.

Read Less

Bum Rap?

Stanley McChrystal didn’t do what he was accused of doing. The New York Times reports:

An Army inquiry into a Rolling Stone magazine article about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has found that it was not the general or senior officers on his staff who made the most egregious comments that led to his abrupt dismissal as the top Afghan commander in June, according to Army and Pentagon officials.

But the review, commissioned after an embarrassing and disruptive episode, does not wholly resolve who was responsible for the inflammatory quotations, most of which were anonymous.

Did tolerating others’ disparaging comments constitute grounds for firing him? Not so clear.

The assignment of Gen. David Petraeus to the Afghanistan command was certainly a good move. But that’s not what is at issue. The dismissal of McChrystal now looks unduly hasty and frankly a bit unfair.

It is yet one more indication that the White House decision-making process bounces between the slipshod (e.g., Shirley Sherrod, Stanley McChrystal) and the snail-like agonizing that characterized the Afghanistan strategy sessions. As to the latter, if Bob Woodward’s book is remotely accurate, the reason it took so long was that a recalcitrant president resisted the advice of his military advisers and was interested not in a war strategy but in a political one. Credit is due primarily to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who hung in there to get the best result obtainable from a president whose concerns were primarily political.

Stanley McChrystal didn’t do what he was accused of doing. The New York Times reports:

An Army inquiry into a Rolling Stone magazine article about Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal has found that it was not the general or senior officers on his staff who made the most egregious comments that led to his abrupt dismissal as the top Afghan commander in June, according to Army and Pentagon officials.

But the review, commissioned after an embarrassing and disruptive episode, does not wholly resolve who was responsible for the inflammatory quotations, most of which were anonymous.

Did tolerating others’ disparaging comments constitute grounds for firing him? Not so clear.

The assignment of Gen. David Petraeus to the Afghanistan command was certainly a good move. But that’s not what is at issue. The dismissal of McChrystal now looks unduly hasty and frankly a bit unfair.

It is yet one more indication that the White House decision-making process bounces between the slipshod (e.g., Shirley Sherrod, Stanley McChrystal) and the snail-like agonizing that characterized the Afghanistan strategy sessions. As to the latter, if Bob Woodward’s book is remotely accurate, the reason it took so long was that a recalcitrant president resisted the advice of his military advisers and was interested not in a war strategy but in a political one. Credit is due primarily to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who hung in there to get the best result obtainable from a president whose concerns were primarily political.

Read Less

A Damning Admission

In his superb column today, Charles Krauthammer highlights a paragraph from Peter Baker’s New York Times story on Barack Obama as commander in chief:

One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” the adviser said. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

“If this is true,” Krauthammer writes, “Obama’s military leadership can only be called scandalous.”

Quite right. And it’s not the first time such a thing has been said about Obama. Here is a paragraph from a June 23 Washington Post article on the controversy then surrounding General Stanley McChrystal:

McChrystal’s apparent disdain for his civilian colleagues, and the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, have exposed the enduring fault lines in the agreement Obama forged last fall among policymakers and military commanders. In exchange for approving McChrystal’s request for more troops and treasure, Obama imposed, and the military accepted, two deadlines sought by his political aides. In December, one year after the strategy was announced, the situation would be reviewed and necessary adjustments made. In July 2011, the troops would begin to come home. [emphasis added]

These are damning admissions — war policies not only being influenced by partisan considerations but in important respects being driven by them.

In embracing a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama made the right decision. At the same time, he made a political accommodation on the withdrawal date, which we now know is undermining our efforts. Earlier this week, I pointed out that Marine Commandant General James Conway, in speaking about the 2011 deadline, said this: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” Intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year, according to Conway. Yet in Tuesday’s prime-time address to the nation, Obama, rather than walk back from his arbitrary withdrawal date, went out of his way to re-emphasize it. “Make no mistake,” the president said, “this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

It turns out that the locution “our interests” refers not to America’s national interests but to Obama’s political self-interest instead.

I worked for President George W. Bush for most of two terms. It is not only inconceivable that he would have allowed such a thing to happen, as he showed in his embrace of the surge despite gale-force political winds and intense pressure from Republicans to withdraw from Iraq because it was damaging the GOP. And I would wager a good deal of money that if a political adviser had even suggested such a thing to him, he would have exploded in anger and probably fired the offending party on the spot. And he would have been right to do so.

“Among the thirty-five men who have held the presidential office,” Dean Acheson wrote in Present at the Creation, “Mr. Truman will stand with the few who in the midst of great difficulties managed their offices with eminent benefit to the public interest. … In the last analysis Mr. Truman’s methods reflected the basic integrity of his own character.”

If only such a thing could be said now.

In his superb column today, Charles Krauthammer highlights a paragraph from Peter Baker’s New York Times story on Barack Obama as commander in chief:

One adviser at the time said Mr. Obama calculated that an open-ended commitment would undermine the rest of his agenda. “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” the adviser said. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

“If this is true,” Krauthammer writes, “Obama’s military leadership can only be called scandalous.”

Quite right. And it’s not the first time such a thing has been said about Obama. Here is a paragraph from a June 23 Washington Post article on the controversy then surrounding General Stanley McChrystal:

McChrystal’s apparent disdain for his civilian colleagues, and the facts on the ground in Afghanistan, have exposed the enduring fault lines in the agreement Obama forged last fall among policymakers and military commanders. In exchange for approving McChrystal’s request for more troops and treasure, Obama imposed, and the military accepted, two deadlines sought by his political aides. In December, one year after the strategy was announced, the situation would be reviewed and necessary adjustments made. In July 2011, the troops would begin to come home. [emphasis added]

These are damning admissions — war policies not only being influenced by partisan considerations but in important respects being driven by them.

In embracing a new counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, President Obama made the right decision. At the same time, he made a political accommodation on the withdrawal date, which we now know is undermining our efforts. Earlier this week, I pointed out that Marine Commandant General James Conway, in speaking about the 2011 deadline, said this: “In some ways, we think right now it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. We think that he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’” Intelligence intercepts suggest that Taliban fighters have been encouraged by the talk of the U.S. beginning to withdraw troops next year, according to Conway. Yet in Tuesday’s prime-time address to the nation, Obama, rather than walk back from his arbitrary withdrawal date, went out of his way to re-emphasize it. “Make no mistake,” the president said, “this transition will begin because open-ended war serves neither our interests nor the Afghan people’s.”

It turns out that the locution “our interests” refers not to America’s national interests but to Obama’s political self-interest instead.

I worked for President George W. Bush for most of two terms. It is not only inconceivable that he would have allowed such a thing to happen, as he showed in his embrace of the surge despite gale-force political winds and intense pressure from Republicans to withdraw from Iraq because it was damaging the GOP. And I would wager a good deal of money that if a political adviser had even suggested such a thing to him, he would have exploded in anger and probably fired the offending party on the spot. And he would have been right to do so.

“Among the thirty-five men who have held the presidential office,” Dean Acheson wrote in Present at the Creation, “Mr. Truman will stand with the few who in the midst of great difficulties managed their offices with eminent benefit to the public interest. … In the last analysis Mr. Truman’s methods reflected the basic integrity of his own character.”

If only such a thing could be said now.

Read Less

Tribute to a Consummate Warrior

A month ago, I wrote that although General Stanley McChrystal may have screwed up big-time in his talk with Rolling Stone, he had earned respect for the dignified way in which he handled his firing. He did not plead for his job, claim he was misquoted, or do any of the other things we have come to expect from (civilian) officeholders in trouble. Instead, as I noted, he “manned up” and assumed full responsibility for a monumental mistake.

He handled his retirement ceremony Friday with similar class and dignity, delivering a speech that ace reporter Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post described as “disarmingly funny, personal and often wistful.” He even managed to poke fun at himself:

He began with a warning to the audience not to contradict his romanticized memories. “I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he said, drawing guffaws from the audience of about 300.

That’s the Stan McChrystal I remember — a general notably free of the pomposity and self-importance that characterizes too many others who wear all those stars on their shoulders. He may have ended his career in a regrettable manner, suggesting he was not quite up to the task of theater-level command, but that should not lead anyone to forget his many distinguished decades of service, including all the years he spent in Iraq supervising the Joint Special Operations Command, which killed and captured many notorious terrorists. As Bob Gates said at the retirement ceremony,”No single American has inflicted more fear or more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies.” It’s hard to imagine a better tribute to a consummate warrior.

A month ago, I wrote that although General Stanley McChrystal may have screwed up big-time in his talk with Rolling Stone, he had earned respect for the dignified way in which he handled his firing. He did not plead for his job, claim he was misquoted, or do any of the other things we have come to expect from (civilian) officeholders in trouble. Instead, as I noted, he “manned up” and assumed full responsibility for a monumental mistake.

He handled his retirement ceremony Friday with similar class and dignity, delivering a speech that ace reporter Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post described as “disarmingly funny, personal and often wistful.” He even managed to poke fun at himself:

He began with a warning to the audience not to contradict his romanticized memories. “I have stories on all of you, photos on many, and I know a Rolling Stone reporter,” he said, drawing guffaws from the audience of about 300.

That’s the Stan McChrystal I remember — a general notably free of the pomposity and self-importance that characterizes too many others who wear all those stars on their shoulders. He may have ended his career in a regrettable manner, suggesting he was not quite up to the task of theater-level command, but that should not lead anyone to forget his many distinguished decades of service, including all the years he spent in Iraq supervising the Joint Special Operations Command, which killed and captured many notorious terrorists. As Bob Gates said at the retirement ceremony,”No single American has inflicted more fear or more loss of life on our country’s most vicious and violent enemies.” It’s hard to imagine a better tribute to a consummate warrior.

Read Less

Hype and Reality over Rules of Engagement

Having recently returned from more than two weeks in Afghanistan, I was struck by how overblown the whole debate over “Rules of Engagement” has become. Back home, bloggers are becoming apoplectic, claiming that, as one website put it, “Obama’s Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Costing Our Troops Lives.” From such hyperbolic reporting, you would think that American soldiers and Marines are routinely being killed in firefights that they might have won had they been able to summon air or artillery support. Not so. The biggest killer of our troops is IEDs, which no amount of bombing can stop. In fact, too much expenditure of firepower can make it harder for our troops to uncover these deadly booby traps, because it alienates the population — the prime source of intelligence.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has just released an interesting paper on the effects of civilian casualties. It is written by four social scientists, one of them a U.S. Army colonel (Joe Felter) currently serving in Afghanistan. Through a careful study of collateral-damage incidents, they determined that every coalition-caused civilian death results in “6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.” In other words, being too indiscriminate in the application of firepower creates more enemies than our operations can remove. Which is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal — not President Obama — instituted tight limits on the use of force.

His restrictions have been in part responsible for a decline in American air strikes and in Afghan civilian deaths. As CNN notes: “Civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces ‘reduced considerably’ to 210 during the period [the first half of the year] because of restrictions imposed on the use of airstrikes. … Deaths in airstrikes dropped by more than 50 percent to 94.” That means, in effect, that U.S. troops created fewer enemies for themselves than they have in the past.

The risks incurred by U.S. troops under this policy are somewhat ameliorated by the fact that their numbers have tripled over the past year. That means they can win more fights without having to call in air support. But there is no doubt that the tight restrictions on air strikes have somewhat increased the risks faced by ground forces, even though McChrystal always made it plain that troops have a right and a duty to act in self-defense.

This has resulted in a handful of highly publicized cases, recycled many times in news accounts, in which troops complain that they were prevented from calling in badly needed air strikes. It appears likely that McChrystal’s broad directives, while well-intentioned, were interpreted too bureaucratically and too narrowly by some units. That is something that General David Petraeus and his operational commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, are now studying to determine whether adjustments are necessary.

But don’t expect Petraeus to declare Afghanistan a free-fire zone. Nor should he. He is mindful, as McChrystal was, that the Soviets killed more than a million Afghans in the 1980s and still lost the war. The “kill them all” approach to counterinsurgency seldom if ever works, and it is certainly not an option for the armed forces of a liberal superpower that must operate under the glare of media scrutiny. Our armed forces must strike a delicate balance between aggressively hunting insurgents and sparing the population among whom the insurgents hide. That is hard to do, and it requires tremendous discipline and fortitude on the part of the troops, but it is the only way to win a war like this one.

Having recently returned from more than two weeks in Afghanistan, I was struck by how overblown the whole debate over “Rules of Engagement” has become. Back home, bloggers are becoming apoplectic, claiming that, as one website put it, “Obama’s Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan Costing Our Troops Lives.” From such hyperbolic reporting, you would think that American soldiers and Marines are routinely being killed in firefights that they might have won had they been able to summon air or artillery support. Not so. The biggest killer of our troops is IEDs, which no amount of bombing can stop. In fact, too much expenditure of firepower can make it harder for our troops to uncover these deadly booby traps, because it alienates the population — the prime source of intelligence.

The National Bureau of Economic Research has just released an interesting paper on the effects of civilian casualties. It is written by four social scientists, one of them a U.S. Army colonel (Joe Felter) currently serving in Afghanistan. Through a careful study of collateral-damage incidents, they determined that every coalition-caused civilian death results in “6 additional violent incidents in an average sized district in the following 6 weeks.” In other words, being too indiscriminate in the application of firepower creates more enemies than our operations can remove. Which is precisely why General Stanley McChrystal — not President Obama — instituted tight limits on the use of force.

His restrictions have been in part responsible for a decline in American air strikes and in Afghan civilian deaths. As CNN notes: “Civilians killed by U.S. and NATO forces ‘reduced considerably’ to 210 during the period [the first half of the year] because of restrictions imposed on the use of airstrikes. … Deaths in airstrikes dropped by more than 50 percent to 94.” That means, in effect, that U.S. troops created fewer enemies for themselves than they have in the past.

The risks incurred by U.S. troops under this policy are somewhat ameliorated by the fact that their numbers have tripled over the past year. That means they can win more fights without having to call in air support. But there is no doubt that the tight restrictions on air strikes have somewhat increased the risks faced by ground forces, even though McChrystal always made it plain that troops have a right and a duty to act in self-defense.

This has resulted in a handful of highly publicized cases, recycled many times in news accounts, in which troops complain that they were prevented from calling in badly needed air strikes. It appears likely that McChrystal’s broad directives, while well-intentioned, were interpreted too bureaucratically and too narrowly by some units. That is something that General David Petraeus and his operational commander, Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, are now studying to determine whether adjustments are necessary.

But don’t expect Petraeus to declare Afghanistan a free-fire zone. Nor should he. He is mindful, as McChrystal was, that the Soviets killed more than a million Afghans in the 1980s and still lost the war. The “kill them all” approach to counterinsurgency seldom if ever works, and it is certainly not an option for the armed forces of a liberal superpower that must operate under the glare of media scrutiny. Our armed forces must strike a delicate balance between aggressively hunting insurgents and sparing the population among whom the insurgents hide. That is hard to do, and it requires tremendous discipline and fortitude on the part of the troops, but it is the only way to win a war like this one.

Read Less

Obama Losing the Public on the War

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama losing ground with the public on Afghanistan:

Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama’s approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows. With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.

Voters’ support for the war depends on whether they make the connection between the war and U.S. security:

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done “a great deal” to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre. It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war’s been worth it.

There are several explanations for the slippage in support. First, it may be a function of the public’s loss of confidence in Obama in general. At the beginning of his term, if a policy or viewpoint was associated with Obama, the voters were inclined to give it thumbs up. The reverse may be true now. And those who are supportive of the war — including a great number of conservatives — may approve of the handling of the war regardless of (or even in spite of) Obama.

Another possibility is that Obama’s war strategy has managed to please no one. Conservatives are losing confidence because Obama has insisted on an unworkable and counterproductive deadline for our troops to pull out. Liberals have long since given up on defending the “good war.” Trying to split the difference — between cutting and running, on the one hand, and an unqualified commitment to victory, on the other – has unnerved voters of both parties, not to mention our allies.

And yet a third possibility is that long wars are unpopular in democracies, and absent compelling and constant leadership, the public inevitably becomes restless and eventually hostile to the war. Obama — aside from the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — has rarely talked about the war of late and hasn’t been effective in explaining the connection between Afghanistan and our national security. There is an argument, of course, (if you accept the first explanation, namely that the public is losing confidence generally in Obama) that it wouldn’t help for him to do or say more on the subject. But, frankly, he hasn’t been trying all that hard. And if the public doesn’t listen to him, the administration needs to find someone who will be able to carry the message consistently and effectively. Maybe if we had a serious person as national security advisor or if Hillary weren’t bogged down with minutiae one of them could assume the national explainer role.

Those supportive of the war effort have tried their best to fend off isolationists on both the right and the left. But ultimately there is no replacement for firm presidential leadership. With the selection of Gen. David Petraeus, a move cheered by both Democrats and Republicans, and a solid Rose Garden speech, Obama seemed to be stepping up to the plate. But, alas, within days, the administration was reiterating its timeline for a troop withdrawal. Since McChrystal’s departure, Obama hasn’t followed up with an effort to educate and win over the public.

As skilled as Petraeus is and as magnificent as our troops are, they can’t win the war without an effective and enthusiastic commander in chief. Now is the time for Obama to get his act together. Otherwise we will suffer a devastating loss and he will bear the burden of that loss.

The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Obama losing ground with the public on Afghanistan:

Support for the war in Afghanistan has hit a new low and President Obama’s approval rating for handling it has declined sharply since spring – results that portend trouble for the administration as the violence there grows. With Obama’s surge under way – and casualties rising – the number of Americans who say the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting has declined from 52 percent in December to 43 percent now. And his approval rating for handling it, 56 percent in April, is down to 45 percent.

Voters’ support for the war depends on whether they make the connection between the war and U.S. security:

Fifty-three percent of Americans say the war in Afghanistan has improved the long-term security of the United States – a majority, but hardly an overpowering one. Fifty percent say the same about the war in Iraq. And many fewer – 25 percent in both cases – say these wars have done “a great deal” to contribute to long-term security, a weak result given their costs in lives and lucre. It matters: Among people who say the Afghanistan war has improved U.S. security, 68 percent also say the war has been worth fighting. In Iraq, among those who see security gains, 72 percent say that war’s been worth it.

There are several explanations for the slippage in support. First, it may be a function of the public’s loss of confidence in Obama in general. At the beginning of his term, if a policy or viewpoint was associated with Obama, the voters were inclined to give it thumbs up. The reverse may be true now. And those who are supportive of the war — including a great number of conservatives — may approve of the handling of the war regardless of (or even in spite of) Obama.

Another possibility is that Obama’s war strategy has managed to please no one. Conservatives are losing confidence because Obama has insisted on an unworkable and counterproductive deadline for our troops to pull out. Liberals have long since given up on defending the “good war.” Trying to split the difference — between cutting and running, on the one hand, and an unqualified commitment to victory, on the other – has unnerved voters of both parties, not to mention our allies.

And yet a third possibility is that long wars are unpopular in democracies, and absent compelling and constant leadership, the public inevitably becomes restless and eventually hostile to the war. Obama — aside from the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — has rarely talked about the war of late and hasn’t been effective in explaining the connection between Afghanistan and our national security. There is an argument, of course, (if you accept the first explanation, namely that the public is losing confidence generally in Obama) that it wouldn’t help for him to do or say more on the subject. But, frankly, he hasn’t been trying all that hard. And if the public doesn’t listen to him, the administration needs to find someone who will be able to carry the message consistently and effectively. Maybe if we had a serious person as national security advisor or if Hillary weren’t bogged down with minutiae one of them could assume the national explainer role.

Those supportive of the war effort have tried their best to fend off isolationists on both the right and the left. But ultimately there is no replacement for firm presidential leadership. With the selection of Gen. David Petraeus, a move cheered by both Democrats and Republicans, and a solid Rose Garden speech, Obama seemed to be stepping up to the plate. But, alas, within days, the administration was reiterating its timeline for a troop withdrawal. Since McChrystal’s departure, Obama hasn’t followed up with an effort to educate and win over the public.

As skilled as Petraeus is and as magnificent as our troops are, they can’t win the war without an effective and enthusiastic commander in chief. Now is the time for Obama to get his act together. Otherwise we will suffer a devastating loss and he will bear the burden of that loss.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Did Obama mention this in Cairo? “A group of young Saudi men have launched a campaign to convince Saudi men of the unappreciated virtues of polygamy.  It is a response to young Saudi women uninterested in joining a polygamous marriage, older Saudi women divorcees and Saudi men unable or unwilling to support more than one woman. The campaign seeks to counter what Saudi traditionalists see as an increasingly negative stigma attached to polygamy.”

Did Democratic lawmakers actually buy the notion that the American people would learn to love ObamaCare? “Almost four months after the passage of major health care legislation, the law remains unpopular with the public. Nearly half of Americans (47%) disapprove of the health care law while just 35% approve of the measure. An overwhelming proportion of opponents of health care legislation — 37% of the public overall — favor repealing the legislation as soon as possible. Just 7% say they want to let the law stand and see how it works. Public opinion toward health care legislation remained very stable in the months leading up to the bill’s passage, and that has continued to be the case.” That miscalculation will likely end more than a few political careers.

Did you expect anything else? “South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is sending strong signals that he may again buck his party and become the lone GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee to vote for Elena Kagan to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

Did Gen. Stanley McChrystal do us all a big favor? Gallup reports: “[Gen. David Petraeus] takes his new job as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan with a remarkably positive image among Americans who know who he is. At the same time, Petraeus now faces the additional challenge of commanding a mission that the majority of Americans say is going badly. Americans’ views of the situation in Iraq improved during and after Petraeus’ tenure as commander in that country. The degree to which Petraeus will be able to shift Americans’ perceptions of the war in Afghanistan in similar fashion will have important consequences in many arenas, including the politics of the war in the U.S.”

Did you think in November 2008 that Barbara Boxer would now be in a toss-up race?

Did he check with Robert Gibbs? “House Majority Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) became the latest Democratic leader to voice confidence that the party will hold its majority in the House this fall.”

Did Robert Reich ever sound so smart? “Democrats have been almost as reluctant to attack inequality or even to recognize it as the central economic and social problem of our age. … As money has risen to the top, so has political power. Politicians are more dependent than ever on big money for their campaigns. … Today’s cash comes in the form of ever increasing campaign donations from corporate executives and Wall Street, their ever larger platoons of lobbyists and their hordes of PR flacks.” Hence, the “major fault line in American politics is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, but between the ‘establishment’ and an increasingly mad-as-hell populace determined to ‘take back America’ from it.”

Did Obama mention this in Cairo? “A group of young Saudi men have launched a campaign to convince Saudi men of the unappreciated virtues of polygamy.  It is a response to young Saudi women uninterested in joining a polygamous marriage, older Saudi women divorcees and Saudi men unable or unwilling to support more than one woman. The campaign seeks to counter what Saudi traditionalists see as an increasingly negative stigma attached to polygamy.”

Did Democratic lawmakers actually buy the notion that the American people would learn to love ObamaCare? “Almost four months after the passage of major health care legislation, the law remains unpopular with the public. Nearly half of Americans (47%) disapprove of the health care law while just 35% approve of the measure. An overwhelming proportion of opponents of health care legislation — 37% of the public overall — favor repealing the legislation as soon as possible. Just 7% say they want to let the law stand and see how it works. Public opinion toward health care legislation remained very stable in the months leading up to the bill’s passage, and that has continued to be the case.” That miscalculation will likely end more than a few political careers.

Did you expect anything else? “South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is sending strong signals that he may again buck his party and become the lone GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee to vote for Elena Kagan to be confirmed to the Supreme Court.”

Did Gen. Stanley McChrystal do us all a big favor? Gallup reports: “[Gen. David Petraeus] takes his new job as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan with a remarkably positive image among Americans who know who he is. At the same time, Petraeus now faces the additional challenge of commanding a mission that the majority of Americans say is going badly. Americans’ views of the situation in Iraq improved during and after Petraeus’ tenure as commander in that country. The degree to which Petraeus will be able to shift Americans’ perceptions of the war in Afghanistan in similar fashion will have important consequences in many arenas, including the politics of the war in the U.S.”

Did you think in November 2008 that Barbara Boxer would now be in a toss-up race?

Did he check with Robert Gibbs? “House Majority Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) became the latest Democratic leader to voice confidence that the party will hold its majority in the House this fall.”

Did Robert Reich ever sound so smart? “Democrats have been almost as reluctant to attack inequality or even to recognize it as the central economic and social problem of our age. … As money has risen to the top, so has political power. Politicians are more dependent than ever on big money for their campaigns. … Today’s cash comes in the form of ever increasing campaign donations from corporate executives and Wall Street, their ever larger platoons of lobbyists and their hordes of PR flacks.” Hence, the “major fault line in American politics is no longer between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, but between the ‘establishment’ and an increasingly mad-as-hell populace determined to ‘take back America’ from it.”

Read Less

The Magic Words

Politico reports that during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General David Petraeus, named by President Obama to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was pressed by Senator Lindsey Graham on a recent letter sent by anti-war congresswoman Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tying support for war funding to a plan for withdrawal.

Under continued questioning from Graham, Petraeus said that putting such conditions on war funding “would be contrary to the whole policy, which is conditions based.”

Those words — “conditions based” — are vital. They demonstrate to both our friends and our enemies that we’re not foolishly committed to withdrawal on an arbitrary date (in this case, July 2011). That Petraeus used these words isn’t surprising; he knows how to run and win a war. But it would help a great deal if his command in chief would as well.

Politico reports that during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General David Petraeus, named by President Obama to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, was pressed by Senator Lindsey Graham on a recent letter sent by anti-war congresswoman Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tying support for war funding to a plan for withdrawal.

Under continued questioning from Graham, Petraeus said that putting such conditions on war funding “would be contrary to the whole policy, which is conditions based.”

Those words — “conditions based” — are vital. They demonstrate to both our friends and our enemies that we’re not foolishly committed to withdrawal on an arbitrary date (in this case, July 2011). That Petraeus used these words isn’t surprising; he knows how to run and win a war. But it would help a great deal if his command in chief would as well.

Read Less

A Presidency on the Rocks

The firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has many liberal pundits breathless. Granted, it’s been a long time since Obama made a decision quickly and effectively. There was disagreement over whether McChrystal had to go, but few quibble with bringing in the general who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. Despite liberals’ delirium (See, he can get something right!), the incident actually highlights the degree to which Obama is no longer in command of events or his own political destiny. In a compelling column, A.B. Stoddard of the Hill writes:

Within the competing factions in burgeoning disagreement over Afghan war policy in his administration, Obama has tried taking shelter in the middle, his habitual no man’s land where he is neither wartime commander nor consensus builder. In deciding to relieve McChrystal, Obama cannot be accused of weakness, but the scandal weakened him instantly and immeasurably and made him appear even more alone.

In a foundering war our allies have lost patience with, and a fragile economic recovery that has failed to make a dent in joblessness, Obama struggles to lead at home and abroad. Seventeen months into office, Obama is increasingly isolated — from his party, from American voters and from the world. Though he was sworn in amid great expectations to transcend partisan, racial, cultural and economic divisions, the country is more polarized than ever and Washington is even more a target for voter anger than it was under President Bush.

Obama has gone from a political colossus to a political leper. (“Obama is so politically toxic in battlegrounds he can’t campaign for most Democratic candidates and his relationships with Democrats outside his intimate circle of mostly Chicagoan advisers fall somewhere between faint and frosty.”) His fondness for big government and for phony budget calculations has run up against increasingly skeptic voters and nervous Democrats. As Stoddard notes:

Democrats have joined Republicans with a newfound distaste for deficit spending. So spooked are Democrats from every region of the country, mostly vulnerable members elected in 2006 and 2008, they are turning their backs on unpaid emergency spending to extend COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and continued unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states that can’t be offset with other spending cuts. Jobs bills are stalling, and a debate about the extension of Bush tax cuts — including those promised to the middle class by then-candidate Obama in his presidential campaign — it’s all on the table in the new age of fiscal rectitude.

None of this should be that surprising. Americans elected an ideologically extreme candidate with no executive experience and little warmth. He identifies with European elites and American academics, not so much with ordinary Americans. He has even managed to annoy his mainstream fan club. It’s no wonder that his administration is on the rocks.

Obama has two and a half years in his term to turn things around. The irony here is that he came into office wanting to change us. Now, to save his presidency, he will have to change policies, staff, and himself. I frankly don’t think he has it in him. But we’ll find out.

The firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal has many liberal pundits breathless. Granted, it’s been a long time since Obama made a decision quickly and effectively. There was disagreement over whether McChrystal had to go, but few quibble with bringing in the general who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in Iraq. Despite liberals’ delirium (See, he can get something right!), the incident actually highlights the degree to which Obama is no longer in command of events or his own political destiny. In a compelling column, A.B. Stoddard of the Hill writes:

Within the competing factions in burgeoning disagreement over Afghan war policy in his administration, Obama has tried taking shelter in the middle, his habitual no man’s land where he is neither wartime commander nor consensus builder. In deciding to relieve McChrystal, Obama cannot be accused of weakness, but the scandal weakened him instantly and immeasurably and made him appear even more alone.

In a foundering war our allies have lost patience with, and a fragile economic recovery that has failed to make a dent in joblessness, Obama struggles to lead at home and abroad. Seventeen months into office, Obama is increasingly isolated — from his party, from American voters and from the world. Though he was sworn in amid great expectations to transcend partisan, racial, cultural and economic divisions, the country is more polarized than ever and Washington is even more a target for voter anger than it was under President Bush.

Obama has gone from a political colossus to a political leper. (“Obama is so politically toxic in battlegrounds he can’t campaign for most Democratic candidates and his relationships with Democrats outside his intimate circle of mostly Chicagoan advisers fall somewhere between faint and frosty.”) His fondness for big government and for phony budget calculations has run up against increasingly skeptic voters and nervous Democrats. As Stoddard notes:

Democrats have joined Republicans with a newfound distaste for deficit spending. So spooked are Democrats from every region of the country, mostly vulnerable members elected in 2006 and 2008, they are turning their backs on unpaid emergency spending to extend COBRA health benefits for the unemployed and continued unemployment benefits and aid to cash-strapped states that can’t be offset with other spending cuts. Jobs bills are stalling, and a debate about the extension of Bush tax cuts — including those promised to the middle class by then-candidate Obama in his presidential campaign — it’s all on the table in the new age of fiscal rectitude.

None of this should be that surprising. Americans elected an ideologically extreme candidate with no executive experience and little warmth. He identifies with European elites and American academics, not so much with ordinary Americans. He has even managed to annoy his mainstream fan club. It’s no wonder that his administration is on the rocks.

Obama has two and a half years in his term to turn things around. The irony here is that he came into office wanting to change us. Now, to save his presidency, he will have to change policies, staff, and himself. I frankly don’t think he has it in him. But we’ll find out.

Read Less

Obama Helps Obama by Keeping McChrystal

There has been some surprising but welcomed (at least by those who’d like to win in Afghanistan) opposition to firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal over his Rolling Stone interview. The Washington Post editors reel off three reasons not to accept the general’s resignation:

First, Gen. McChrystal is the architect of a crucial counterinsurgency campaign underway in southern Afghanistan — a strategy Mr. Obama approved after months of deliberation last year. … Second, whatever his reputation in Washington, Gen. McChrystal has built strong ties with the Afghan and Pakistani officials whose cooperation is vital to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. … Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible. As we pointed out on this page last week, the administration’s performance in Afghanistan has been hamstrung by continuing differences between civilian officials and military commanders that date to the debate over strategy last year. …

Mr. Obama has tolerated this feuding, with consequences that include poor coordination of military and civilian operations and deteriorating relations with Mr. Karzai. His dismissal of Gen. McChrystal would hand a victory to those in his administration who have resisted the counterinsurgency operations.

There is a fourth reason: Obama needs to shed his peevish and self-absorbed persona, to demonstrate to friends and foes that he can command a war effort, and to dispel the growing perception that he’s in over his head. He doesn’t do this by being the tough guy with the general, whom we have relied on to win the war. (And by the way, if McChrystal does quit, won’t we hear a whole lot more from him about the civilian officials who’ve been making the military’s job harder?) For a president very much concerned about his own image, maybe the most compelling argument for him to keep McChrystal is this: it’ll make Obama look good.

There has been some surprising but welcomed (at least by those who’d like to win in Afghanistan) opposition to firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal over his Rolling Stone interview. The Washington Post editors reel off three reasons not to accept the general’s resignation:

First, Gen. McChrystal is the architect of a crucial counterinsurgency campaign underway in southern Afghanistan — a strategy Mr. Obama approved after months of deliberation last year. … Second, whatever his reputation in Washington, Gen. McChrystal has built strong ties with the Afghan and Pakistani officials whose cooperation is vital to the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. … Most important, the inflammatory comments in the Rolling Stone article are symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction for which Gen. McChrystal is not chiefly responsible. As we pointed out on this page last week, the administration’s performance in Afghanistan has been hamstrung by continuing differences between civilian officials and military commanders that date to the debate over strategy last year. …

Mr. Obama has tolerated this feuding, with consequences that include poor coordination of military and civilian operations and deteriorating relations with Mr. Karzai. His dismissal of Gen. McChrystal would hand a victory to those in his administration who have resisted the counterinsurgency operations.

There is a fourth reason: Obama needs to shed his peevish and self-absorbed persona, to demonstrate to friends and foes that he can command a war effort, and to dispel the growing perception that he’s in over his head. He doesn’t do this by being the tough guy with the general, whom we have relied on to win the war. (And by the way, if McChrystal does quit, won’t we hear a whole lot more from him about the civilian officials who’ve been making the military’s job harder?) For a president very much concerned about his own image, maybe the most compelling argument for him to keep McChrystal is this: it’ll make Obama look good.

Read Less

Flotsam and Jetsam

Gen. Stanley McChrystal took the blame. But he isn’t the problem, says Jackson Diehl: “If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”

It took Rolling Stone to make clear “just how badly Barack Obama’s ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is going.”

Obama took office in January 2009, yet voters think Hillary Clinton is more qualified to be president: “A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% of voters feel Clinton is qualified to be president, but 34% disagree and say she is not. As for President Obama, 51% say he is fit for the job. However, 44% say he is not qualified to be president, even though he has now served 17 months in the job.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell took a few hits early in his term but his approval stands at 63%, according to an internal poll.

The North Korean soccer team took a beating. (“After an embarrassing 7-0 drubbing by Portugal yesterday, will the North Korean soccer team have to face the wrath of Kim Jong Il?”) Maybe they should have hired Chinese players instead of Chinese fans.

Obama took it on the chin in court yesterday: “A federal judge in New Orleans halted President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium on Tuesday, saying the government never justified the ban and appeared to mislead the public in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued an injunction, saying that the moratorium will hurt drilling-rig operators and suppliers and that the government has not proved an outright ban is needed, rather than a more limited moratorium. He also said the Interior Department also misstated the opinion of the experts it consulted. Those experts from the National Academy of Engineering have said they don’t support the blanket ban.”

It took the NRA to put a bullet through the heart of campaign finance “reform”: “Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of just two Republican sponsors of a sweeping campaign finance bill, is so upset about late changes to the measure he is considering withdrawing his support and voting against it. ‘He’s absolutely opposed to the [NRA] exemption,’ Castle spokeswoman Kate Dickens told The Hill. ‘The exemptions are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think they are even done yet.’”

It took Obama to put Russ Feingold’s seat at risk. “Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold is still in a virtual dead heat with endorsed Republican challenger Ron Johnson in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.”

Gen. Stanley McChrystal took the blame. But he isn’t the problem, says Jackson Diehl: “If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.”

It took Rolling Stone to make clear “just how badly Barack Obama’s ‘good war’ in Afghanistan is going.”

Obama took office in January 2009, yet voters think Hillary Clinton is more qualified to be president: “A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 57% of voters feel Clinton is qualified to be president, but 34% disagree and say she is not. As for President Obama, 51% say he is fit for the job. However, 44% say he is not qualified to be president, even though he has now served 17 months in the job.”

Gov. Bob McDonnell took a few hits early in his term but his approval stands at 63%, according to an internal poll.

The North Korean soccer team took a beating. (“After an embarrassing 7-0 drubbing by Portugal yesterday, will the North Korean soccer team have to face the wrath of Kim Jong Il?”) Maybe they should have hired Chinese players instead of Chinese fans.

Obama took it on the chin in court yesterday: “A federal judge in New Orleans halted President Obama’s deepwater drilling moratorium on Tuesday, saying the government never justified the ban and appeared to mislead the public in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Judge Martin L.C. Feldman issued an injunction, saying that the moratorium will hurt drilling-rig operators and suppliers and that the government has not proved an outright ban is needed, rather than a more limited moratorium. He also said the Interior Department also misstated the opinion of the experts it consulted. Those experts from the National Academy of Engineering have said they don’t support the blanket ban.”

It took the NRA to put a bullet through the heart of campaign finance “reform”: “Rep. Mike Castle (Del.), one of just two Republican sponsors of a sweeping campaign finance bill, is so upset about late changes to the measure he is considering withdrawing his support and voting against it. ‘He’s absolutely opposed to the [NRA] exemption,’ Castle spokeswoman Kate Dickens told The Hill. ‘The exemptions are getting bigger and bigger. I don’t think they are even done yet.’”

It took Obama to put Russ Feingold’s seat at risk. “Incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold is still in a virtual dead heat with endorsed Republican challenger Ron Johnson in Wisconsin’s U.S. Senate race.”

Read Less

The Missing Link: It’s Not McChrystal

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

General Stanley McChrystal’s frustration – some of it most improperly expressed – reminded me of the Washington Post background piece from December 2009, in which the authors communicated the Obama Afghanistan policy thus:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

According to an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. … The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

I wrote at the time that this was not executable guidance. It’s the kind of guidance that can be used with some limited success by an individual leader who has a more specific plan and enjoys latitude, trust, and support from his seniors. But success will always be limited — local, situational, and tactical — when the overarching guidance consists not of an objective but of an anti-objective. McChrystal has made the most of his options within the framework of guidance, which amounts to a politically-manipulable exit strategy. But it has been clear for months that his political supervisors — Karl Eikenberry, Richard Holbrooke, the president — are fundamentally disengaged from the actual campaign plan being implemented.

Who has the sense that President Obama is politically and morally invested in the surge being ramped up in Kandahar? When does he speak of it in public? When does he lend the weight of statesmanlike rhetoric to the military effort in its specific incarnations? As commander in chief, he has confined himself largely to expressing generic thanks to the troops for their service and sacrifice. He speaks occasionally about political relations with Afghanistan and the Karzai regime, but we never hear him making a military-operational case for NATO’s endeavors there — or tying the military approach to our political goals.

That is a virtually unique failing in an American president. Think back through all the presidents in your lifetime: each one of them, even Jimmy Carter, gave a stronger impression of integrated, accountable leadership in the military realm. This is not a matter of putting on a show or cultivating appearances either. The issue is conveying that what’s being done in the field in Afghanistan represents the president’s will and intention and has a purpose he is fully committed to.

The truth is, however, that there is no commitment to an objective. That’s what it means when Obama’s advisers speak vaguely of a “less-capable national government” for Afghanistan than for Iraq, a “greater tolerance of insurgent violence,” and “not doing everything and not doing it forever.” I believe, with Max Boot and others, that Afghanistan is winnable; but even with McChrystal’s strategy, I do not believe it can be won while the political guidance is temporizing and uncommitted. Military force is a tool of political will, not a substitute for it.

Sadly, a chastened General McChrystal will function even less effectively in this environment. When your job entails offering unpalatable truths and unwelcome advice, breaches of trust are very hard to overcome. In this painful situation, it would be a better sign of Obama’s own engagement if he picked a new commander. If he doesn’t, I wish McChrystal all the lucky breaks he can get. He’s going to need them.

Read Less

Should the General Be Called on the Carpet?

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.

But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.

One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.

The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.

As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.

But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.

Read Less

McChrystal’s Media Woes

If there is one knock on Stanley McChrystal, generally considered one of the top generals in the entire armed forces, it is that, coming from the secretive world of “black” special operations, he is not experienced in dealing with the media. The consequences of that inexperience have now exploded in his face in the form of a hostile Rolling Stone article entitled “Runaway General.”

What on earth was McChrystal thinking, one wonders, when he decided to grant so much access to an anti-war reporter from an anti-war magazine? Michael Hastings’s animus against the war effort shines through every inch of his article. His conclusion is that “winning” in Afghanistan “is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” Along the way he brands the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal is implementing “a controversial strategy” that is advocated only by “COINdiniastas” notorious for their “their cultish zeal.” When he quotes outside experts in the article, all of them express disparaging views about the prospects of success. For instance:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

There is no indication in the article that Macgregor is a notorious maverick widely known for his eccentric views, which included calling for the lightest of footprints in the invasion of Iraq (he thought that 50,000 troops would be sufficient) and later opposing the surge in Iraq.

Yet while Macgregor may think McChrystal is implementing an unworkable theory, McChrystal’s plan has had the solid support of General David Petraeus, head of Central Command; Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, after an agonizing three-month review in the fall that considered every conceivable alternative, President Obama, himself.

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

If there is one knock on Stanley McChrystal, generally considered one of the top generals in the entire armed forces, it is that, coming from the secretive world of “black” special operations, he is not experienced in dealing with the media. The consequences of that inexperience have now exploded in his face in the form of a hostile Rolling Stone article entitled “Runaway General.”

What on earth was McChrystal thinking, one wonders, when he decided to grant so much access to an anti-war reporter from an anti-war magazine? Michael Hastings’s animus against the war effort shines through every inch of his article. His conclusion is that “winning” in Afghanistan “is not really possible. Not even with Stanley McChrystal in charge.” Along the way he brands the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal is implementing “a controversial strategy” that is advocated only by “COINdiniastas” notorious for their “their cultish zeal.” When he quotes outside experts in the article, all of them express disparaging views about the prospects of success. For instance:

“The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” says Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

There is no indication in the article that Macgregor is a notorious maverick widely known for his eccentric views, which included calling for the lightest of footprints in the invasion of Iraq (he thought that 50,000 troops would be sufficient) and later opposing the surge in Iraq.

Yet while Macgregor may think McChrystal is implementing an unworkable theory, McChrystal’s plan has had the solid support of General David Petraeus, head of Central Command; Admiral James Stavridis, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe; Admiral Michael Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, after an agonizing three-month review in the fall that considered every conceivable alternative, President Obama, himself.

McChrystal was undoubtedly stupid to grant so much access to a hostile reporter, and his aides were equally clueless in making some disparaging remarks in front of this reporter about Vice President Biden and National Security Adviser Jim Jones, among others. But that in no way invalidates McChrystal’s plan, which should be carried out, with some inevitable adjustments, by whomever is the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Should that person be McChrystal? Despite the calls for his firing emanating from the usual quarters on the left, the general is certainly not guilty of violating the chain of command in the way that truly insubordinate generals like Douglas MacArthur have. Recall that MacArthur publicly disagreed with Truman’ strategy in the Korean War. Likewise, Admiral Fox Fallon was fired as Centcom commander in 2008 after publicly disagreeing in an Esquire article with Bush-administration strategy over Iran. McChrystal does nothing of the sort. At worst, one of his aides says that McChrystal was “disappointed” by his initial meetings with the president, who looked “uncomfortable and intimidated.” Most of the disparaging comments heard from McChrystal’s aides are directed not at the president but at presidential aides who oppose the strategy that the president himself announced back in the fall and that McChrystal is working 24/7 to implement. Is this type of banter enough for Obama to fire McChrystal?

It could be, but if he does it could represent a setback to the war effort — and to the president’s hopes to withdraw some troops next summer. The least disruption would occur if a general already in Afghanistan — Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day to day operations, is the obvious choice — takes over. If an outsider were chosen (e.g., Marine General Jim Mattis), there would likely be a delay of months while the new commander conducted his own assessment of the situation. That’s a delay we can ill afford right now. On the other hand, we can ill afford having McChrystal stay if he is so discredited with the commander in chief and so weakened in internal-administration deliberations that he cannot stand up to the attempts by Biden and other internal critics to downsize the mission prematurely.

McChrystal has undoubtedly created a major problem for himself, his command, and the larger mission in Afghanistan. But I still believe he is a terrific general who has come up with a good strategy and has energized a listless command that was drifting when he took over. Notwithstanding the current turmoil, the war remains eminently winnable, and the McChrystal strategy remains the best option for winning it.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.