The Obama Indecision: The Gen. McChrystal Problem

[Editors Note: So I wrote the majority of this post by 11:30am this morning and by the time I returned around 3:00pm, McChrystal had "resigned" and Gen. Petraeus had been appointed by President Obama.]

Our president, Barack Obama made it clear in April of 2008 that he was a politician and that he was all about political expediency: that which advanced politics as usual.  He summarily threw Jeremiah Wright and Van Jones under the bus; he put political insiders on his White House staff namely Rahm Emmanuel and David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs; even Desiree Rogers has found herself without a job; he backpeddaled on the Henry Louis Gates situation…

…shall I go on?

I just read the entire Rolling Stones article “The Runaway General” where reporter Michael Hastings was embedded for a month with Team America, the name given by  General Stanley McChrystal of whom the article’s central focus.  The reporter, clearly of the liberal sort takes issue with some of the politics behind the war in Afghanistan clearly, but also covers this whole idea of counterinsurgency  nicknamed COIN.  According to the Rolling Stones article:

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. In 2006, after Gen. David Petraeus beta-tested the theory during his “surge” in Iraq, it quickly gained a hardcore following of think-tankers, journalists, military officers and civilian officials. Nicknamed “COINdinistas” for their cultish zeal, this influential cadre believed the doctrine would be the perfect solution for Afghanistan. All they needed was a general with enough charisma and political savvy to implement it.

From what I gathered in the article, McChrystal was a general who had to sell this COIN idea to Obama, meaning that essentially he was going to have to convince Obama it was a good idea to send more troops to Afghanistan.  Not to mention, sell the idea to Washington that we may be entrenched in the war much longer than anyone ever imagined.  There’s also the structural problem that the military is facing on the Washington political side of the spectrum and Hastings makes sure to point it out.

While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves into the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots and hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan. “It jeopardizes the mission,” says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who supports McChrystal. “The military cannot by itself create governance reform.”

Part of the problem is structural: The Defense Department budget exceeds $600 billion a year, while the State Department receives only $50 billion. But part of the problem is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a “clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.” Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.” Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal’s inner circle. “Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,” says an adviser. “She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.’ ”

Well, not gonna lie: I can imagine his frustration.  The article goes on to show the level of mixed morale that the troops on the ground are facing given the new strategies that McChrystal has implemented.  For example, McChrystal has set forth new rules of engagement that attempt to limit the number of civilian casualties, or the infamous “collateral damage” phrase that for every civilian killed, it creates yet another family willing to fight against the Americans and join Al-Qaeda.  Or calling for troops to patrol areas that aren’t as high risk, which results in soldiers feeling that they’re not being asked to fight.

For me this poses the eternal conundrum when living in a state of war: how does one determine victory?  Traditional empirical approaches is a clear militaristic defeat and resulting occupation, it is then the job the occupying to state to institute a government and new rules of governance.  We saw the rules of war change in Western society in the 19th century when these ideals of democracy and republic began to emerge and we moved away from this autocratic form of government be it a king or some form of dictatorial rule (think Roman emperors to the various kings and queens of Europe throughout the ages).

So now, there is this notion of warring for the sake of those who can’t fight for themselves, or because of some altruistic reasons. For example: the Civil War was fought to keep the union together; the U.S. allied with Britain to defeat the Germans prior to their entrance in the Pacific theatre; Vietnam was fought for the sake of spreading democracy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are against terror.  Over the years the reasons for fighting have gotten more and more ephemeral and psychological, but the militaristic approach, in my arm chair assessment, hasn’t changed that much.

Our soldiers are trained to be killers and to destroy human lives.  Let’s be clear about that.  Soldiers don’t operate in nuances, and McChrystal is asking soldiers to be nuanced in their approach and clearly this poses a problem.  Interestingly enough, many Americans can’t grasp their minds around a military that is nuanced in their approach: either the military needs to be there and do what they do, or they don’t. Period.

That’s why the general public is either saying “yes, McChrystal should be fired” or “No, he should keep his job and call out the president et. al. for their B.S.”  Well, yes, McChrystal I think has two big questions on his record, the Pat Tillman incident where he signed off on some documents saying former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed by enemy fire when it was indeed friendly fire (although some conspiracists are conspiring that it was murder **rolls eyes**) and that McChrystal’s name came up in some detainee abuse and torture allegations with various prisons in Iraq.  To me, that means he shouldn’t have had the job in the first place.

But since he’s in the position, I think Obama’s best bet would be the Keith Olbermann approach.

The comments were inappropriate.  As inappropriate as the Seattle police officer punching out the young girl was, an immediate removal from the office is not the right response.  Given Olbermann’s run down of the general’s that were replaced underneath the Bush administration, maybe the problem with this Iraq and Afghanistan war is that we’ve been replacing all the leaders.  Many reasoned that one should vote for George W. Bush in 2004 because it was wartime and that we should not be changing leaders.

That’s perhaps advice that may still carry some merit in this instance.

Honestly, what would it really profit Obama or McChrystal by accepting his resignation or outright firing him from his position?  Granted McChrystal should have never been in the position in the first place, and both men should have recognised that from the start, but that’s the proverbial water under the bridge.

As Olbermann said, make McChrystal fix the mess he created with the COIN strategy.  So if Obama replaces McChrystal with Petraeus, does this mean that Petraeus is going to undo what has already been done in the past months and years under McChrystal–or is Petraeus just going to pass out and go unconscious?

Perhaps his passing out is emblematic of the military mite of this country: unconscious due to lack of hydration and unable to stand questioning from the people it says its defending.

What a sad state of affairs.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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One response to “The Obama Indecision: The Gen. McChrystal Problem

  1. Unfortunately, McChrystal and his immediate subordinates openly and flagrantly disrespected the POTUS.

    Douglas McArthur and George Patton (?), both prominent generals before him had to ‘stand down’ when using insubordinate language when referring to the POTUS Harry S. Truman.

    Generals know this when they swear allegiance to serve.

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