Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Keep General McChrystal; fire some of the civilians instead

A Rolling Stone reporter got a chance to interview General Stanley McChrystal, currently (but maybe not for much longer) head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The reporter, Michael Hastings, was supposed to fly home after two days, but then the volcano in Iceland blew its top, and the reporter ended up following McChrystal and his staff across Europe and all the way to Kandahar and back to Washington. The two-day trip turned into, what was it, 28 days? Longer?

(NPR aired a telephone interview with Hastings today. That's where I got those facts from. Hastings sounded a little stressed out -- he lashed out unnecessarily at Michelle Norris, the NPR interviewer. He's back in Kandahar, and I think that maybe he needs to come home.)

The result of spending 28 days with the general and his staff, with his "notebook in one hand and tape recorder in the other," as he said it, was that he saw the general and his staff let their hair down a few times, and it became clear in those unguarded moments that the military leaders in Afghanistan do not have a lot of respect for the civilian leaders in Washington.

Now, we could debate whether that's right or wrong, and whether the military leaders are supposed to, as Oliver North said, "salute smartly and charge up the hill" or whether they're allowed to have (and voice) their own opinions. I don't want to debate the rightness or wrongness of the general's behavior.

Political reality being what it is, he's toast. But firing him would be the stupidest thing those civilians in Washington could do right now. McChrystal has pointed out, without actually saying it, that Afghanistan has out-Vietnamed Vietnam. It's a war run by the civilians in Washington, an appalling number of whom have never held a gun or stood in a uniform. That was one of the big mistakes of Vietnam.

Let the warriors run the war, for Pete's sake. Nobody in the White House right now knows how to fight a war. The president surrounds himself with experts, he says, but they're the wrong kind of experts. There is no Colin Powell, no Norman Schwartzkopf, to provide the perspective of Someone Who's Been There.

McChrystal was absolutely right when, in January, he stood up to Vice President Joseph Biden when Biden wanted to put more UAVs and fewer troops into Afghanistan. And the contempt for the civilian leadership, which unfortunately leaked out during the reporter's stay, and which was also unfortunately published for all the world to see, is a contempt that those civilian leaders have earned.

Would it have been better if McChrystal had enforced the discipline among his staff so that they kept all of that contempt bottled up while the reporter was around? The contempt was real, and to hide it for 28 days would have been dishonest.

If McChrystal is fired for this episode, it will be because he was honest. And once the political leadership of this country starts firing people because of their honesty, we're in trouble.

You may not believe me. You don't have to. But I was right about the banks, I was right about the car companies, and I was right about the post-Nov-2008 Democrats. I'm right about this, too. You'll see.

Postscript: Hastings said (to quote NPR) that he "remembered being shocked by the general's candor and outspokenness during interviews, but he did not anticipate his article would cause the hullabaloo it has." That's baloney. He entitled his article "The Runaway General," indicating that he knew exactly what kind of reaction the article would get. After spending weeks witnessing the honesty of a great man, Hastings resorted to a lie to try and weasel out of taking responsibility for his own words.

Save us from inept politicians and spineless reporters.

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