jimsleeper.com » McChrystal’s Master-Stroke?

McChrystal’s Master-Stroke?

By getting fired, has he set the stage for an insurgency against Obama?

By Jim Sleeper – June 24, 2010

An interesting theory about Stanley McChrystal’s motives and strategy — and about what Obama may have lost by dismissing him — popped up in a thread below my column yesterday, and I urged David Seaton to make the comment into a post of his own. He did so, suggesting that McChrystal — furious at Obama’s time-lines and low level of commitment of troops and resources to what the general believes should be a massive counterinsurgency, embedded in a total war — wanted to be fired, so that blame for the inevitable defeat of the present effort would be placed on Obama and his civilian team’s refusal to commit fully to win the war.

McChrystal could retire from the military after a decent interval and undertake a domestic insurgency of his own, with total commitment from Rupert Murdoch and the conservative noise machine. Neo-cons would be back in the saddle of public discourse, riding hard. As Seaton notes, the “I want my country back” crowd will march in lockstep behind McChrystal, denouncing Obama’s indecision, not the impossibility of the grand strategy itself.

Hence a Machiavellian question: Shouldn’t Obama have refused McChrystal’s resignation; made him eat humble pie in public by proclaiming his undying fealty to civilian control; and sent him back to Afghanistan? By firing McChrystal, hasn’t Obama instead punished himself for supporting our entry into Afghanistan as LBJ did our entry into Vietnam — less out of conviction than out of a desire to cover his right flank at home? Isn’t this another Greek tragedy, with McChrystal now playing the part of Obama’s Nemesis?

Well, maybe. You can see tragedy unfolding if you note how, soon after the Rolling Stone story about McChrystal’s supposed disloyalty to the Commander in Chief broke, some neo-cons’ initial “surge” on behalf of McChrystal collapsed into a very different, more sinister strategy by day’s end.

Neo-cons hoped at first to save the architect of their grand strategy in Afghanistan; I mocked their doe-eyed raptures about nation-building there some months ago in Dissent. But the only story they really want to push now is about Obama’s failure to commit us to the total war and total victory that they crave in all times and all places.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose counterinsurgency raptures I cited in Dissent, hides this bent with a “more in sorrow than in anger” defense of McChrystal today. This typically amnesiac and dishonest column doesn’t tell us that on one of his only trips abroad as a Times columnist (for all his Iraq War cheer-leading, he never visited Iraq) he went to Afghanistan last year and got the full McChrystal treatment. So now he casts McChrystal as a victim of the voracious “new media” culture that has turned power-holders’ private kvetches into public business.

Awash in Beltway narcissism (see Andrew Sullivan’s put-down of Brooks’ coziness and Sullivan’s defense of the Rolling Stone freelancer), Brooks tells us of a lost golden age of media restraint (apparently there was no Walter Winchell or McCarthyism), and he bypasses McChrystal’s own past efforts to play the media against Obama. He gives us St. Stanley the Innocent, being eaten alive by newshounds.

Brooks’ default position is the same as the rest of the neo-cons’: to persuade us that it is 1938 or 1940, and that everywhere (Moscow, Baghdad, Tehran, the Pashtun) is Hitler’s Berlin, and that every liberal Democrat is, sooner or later, a Neville Chamberlain, fatuously proclaiming “Peace in our time.”

That’s what Obama did last year, to hear neo-cons tell it, when he went to Cairo, Istanbul, and Moscow — and even Berlin. Why didn’t he just go to Munich? That’s what they want to know. They recite — in their sleep, in the shower, and online  — Winston Churchill’s response in 1940 to a message from FDR bearing a Longfellow poem:

Sail on, Oh ship of state
Sail on, Oh Union strong and great.
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!

Churchill read this poem on the air to Britons, who were hanging on his every word as the Nazi threat loomed. Then he said:

“What shall be my answer, in your name, to this great man? ‘Give us the tools, and we will finish the job!’

And what did the neo-conservative Commentary magazine’s Peter Wehner write yesterday while trying to make the best of Obama’s replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus? “Barack Obama better be all in,” Wehner warned, meaning that the president had better scrap his time-lines and ramp up the war. “If given the tools, David Petraeus — one more time — can finish the job.”

The echo of Churchill is no doubt deliberate. But is this 1940? Are the Muslim insurgents (against what, exactly?) really the Axis? There’s a debate underway about that, but, knowing all the answers as they do, neo-cons were solidly behind McChrystal until yesterday and, in some cases, even a day after the Rolling Stone story raised serious questions about his commitment to civilian control of the military.

The first neo-con to rush forward in McChrystal’s defense was Commentary’s Jennifer Rubin, one of the many, always-on-message drones who never think a serious political thought because they’re too busy lacing the line of the moment with just the right mix of solemn patriotism and tactical slime (I bold-face both below) to put “the line” across:

“Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the [Rolling Stone] article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a warto 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.”

Obama’s leadership is a legitimate concern, whether you want total war or think that we shouldn’t have tried counterinsurgency at all and that Obama was dragged into it only as LBJ was. But neo-cons already considered McChrystal a better national leader than Obama, so out came Rubin’s unthinking, on-message reaction.

Similarly on-message was Washington Post neo-con editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt, whose page offered three reasons why McChrystal must not be fired: He had created the counterinsurgency strategy; he had good working relationships there; and now he’d outed the Obama administration’s faults, which, of course, were more grievous than his own.

Rubin, clearly delighted to be singing in Hiatt’s chorus, weighed in immediately with “a fourth reason” to keep McChrystal: “Obama needs to shed his peevish and self-absorbed persona,… and to dispel the growing perception that he’s in over his head…. (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?)

Who did Rubin think she was advising here, and to what end? It was getting a little embarrassing, especially when the Weekly Standard announced a Message Change, moving with its hero John McCain’s statement to the effect that McChrystal must indeed be dismissed. The ostensible reason for this shift was loyalty to the republic’s cardinal principle of civilian control. The real reason, as far as people like Rubin is concerned, is a desire to have a martyr who perhaps can help to heap the blame on Obama.

Rubin began to backtrack about keeping McChrystal in Afghanistan, but only in order to stay with the Message: “Obama’s decision to accept Gen. Stanley McChyrstal’s resignation was not unexpected. By bringing back Gen. David Petraeus, he assuages the concerns from supporters of the Afghanistan mission as to whether we are committed to victory. There are two more essential changes required,” she continued: Since “McChrystal threw the curtain open on the dysfunctional and counterproductive civilian team in Afghanistan,… Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry should be canned…. Second, a wise reader likes to tell me, ‘Generals should only talk to their troops.’ What a fine idea.”

Oops, not so wise or so fine: Rubin’s Commentary online colleagues began to correct this and others of her butt-covering lurches, Max Boot informing her that, these days, generals actually need proactive public media strategies, not silence.

Finally, Peter Wehner weighed in “In Praise of Obama and Petraeus,” as linked above. What had complicated the Message was that Obama chose Petraeus, hero of the Iraq surge. Now Obama’s detractors have to drive a wedge between him and Petraeus by showing that Obama isn’t giving him the tools to finish the job. Wehner’s “praise” of Obama for appointing Petraeus will very soon be followed by his not-so-sorrowful despair at the president’s failure to follow through.

It won’t be very hard to carry this line, especially once McChrystal gives his first big, out-of-uniform speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Brace yourself for calls to escalate the war that’ll make McCain’s “Bomb, bomb, bomb/ Bomb bomb Iran” seem like the joke he only half-meant it to be.

This is no joke. It’s either 1940, and the Axis is just across the channel, or it’s 1914, and the neo-con revolver journalists are teaming up with generals, as their predecessors did then in Europe, to foment public enthusiasm for this war and another with Iran.

The problem, as Seaton suggests, is that the “I want my country back” crowd — and, I would add, many of our would-be public intellectuals, from Paul Berman to the New York Times Book Review’s increasingly creepy deputy editor Barry Gewen — have become addled and angry enough to believe that it is 1940 and that that is how the world is, and how it must be, unless we gird up our loins and unleash the dogs of torture and war. For them, there is no other way, and now Obama has given them a new martyr and champion.

This is really just an addendum to my post:

In airing this “theory” about McChrystal wanting out (not just so that he can escape blame for a failing mission, but perhaps also to make sure that the blame attaches to the administration, not the Pentagon), I’m assuming only two things.

First, that the strategy in Afghanistan is going nowhere, not just because Cassandra-like, sensationalist news media say so, but because it’s really going nowhere;

Second, that McChrystal, who drank the “soft power” kool-aid during his year at Harvard’s Kennedy School, got grandly ambitious about it, and that he has been frustrated ever since, believing that Obama and his team (Biden, Eikenberry, Holbrook) have let him down by under-funding and stage-managing everything for domestic politics. So he has felt betrayed.

I don’t say that he orchestrated his departure all that much; he may have lurched into his confrontation with Obama somewhat. But I suspect that it would have happened sooner or later, even if the Rolling Stone reporter had been a pushover and the volcano hadn’t stranded McChrystal’s staff with him for so long. McChrystal seems to have tried to outfox the civilian leadership via the media before.

So, no, I’m not thinking literally that there was a “master-stroke” on McChrystal’s part but that he did feel betrayed and is bitter and that he has a mind of his own and some ambitions. And I’m assuming that neo-cons and the “I want my country back” crowd would love to use him in any way they can to discredit Obama.

I’m not suggesting that McChrystal will run for office whenever he actually leaves the military, only that he may want to speak his mind in some way that sticks. But maybe the ghost of Ollie North is haunting me; he did run for office, and, although he lost, he remained a cause celebre and champion of the abnormally disaffected. Perhaps McChrystal is too “liberal” for that, as some are claiming, but after all that he’s been through, I’m less sanguine.