The McChrystal Affair: A Boon for Obama?

In the now famous Rolling Stone interview by Michael Hastings, Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staff disparage a number of top officials, including President Obama, Vice President Biden, Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. Among the comments made by McChrystal, himself, frankly and on the record, is this one on Eikenberry: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books.  Now, if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.’”

This is an allusion to Eikenberry’s leaked November 2009 cables to Washington as Obama mulled over McChrystal’s request for an additional 40-50,000 troops in Afghanistan. (Obama had already provided McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. McKiernan, 17,000 more earlier that year.) In one of them he declared that Afghan President Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner” and that “[s]ending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable.” In other words, he was all but predicting mission failure.

The month before, in a Q&A session after a speech in London, McChrystal had been asked if he would support the policy of scaling back forces in Afghanistan favored by Biden. By military rules he ought to have said, “I’ll obey the orders of my Commander-in-Chief.” But he answered, “The short answer is: No. Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, and nor will public support.” Given this public difference with the vice president, the general was courting an executive rebuke. He was immediately called to task by Obama on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president was pushing Chicago’s unsuccessful bid to host the Olympics.

The press described the 25-minute meeting as “tense” but the rebuke was apparently gentle. Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, merely observed, “It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president, candidly but privately.” National Security Advisor, Gen. Jim Jones, told CNN, as though speaking of a hypothetical situation, “Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

Of course, now we have a sense of the depth of McChrystal’s contempt for the civilian leadership; he felt Obama was “disengaged” from the war and “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the military. He ridiculed Biden in a conversation with an aide in Hastings’ presence. He was saying, in effect, both in the London talk and in the interview that these fools should just leave the policy up to us.

Well, maybe Obama is intimidated by the brass. In December he caved in to McChrystal’s request by giving him 30,000 more soldiers. (Or perhaps he thought he was–once again–taking a “middle” and conciliatory position by not giving him all he wanted.)

But what of McChrystal’s comment on Eikenberry, a fellow (former) general, and his concern about “covering his flank for the history books” by opposing, with Biden, the troop increase?

For some reason I’m reminded of how George W. Bush replied to Bob Woodward’s question about how history would judge the Iraq War. “History?,” he replied, “We don’t know. We’ll all be dead.” I’m also reminded of an unnamed neocon’s disdainful comment to New York Times journalist, Ron Suskind, in 2002 about people in the “reality-based community” that “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” And “how that’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality… We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to study what we do.”

There’s the same kind of contempt for reality and historical repercussions in McChrystal’s comment about Eikenberry: where does Eikenberry get off judiciously studying reality when the Empire requires powerful delusions? And then shooting his mouth off about his realistic observations?

Perhaps McChrystal at some mental level realizes that the war is going to fail, like the U.S. effort in South Vietnam. In his London talk he noted, “The situation is serious, and I choose that word very carefully.  I would add that neither success nor failure for our endeavor in support of the Afghan people and government can be taken for granted.  My assessment and my best military judgment is that the situation is, in some ways, deteriorating, but not in all ways.”

Maybe he’s contrasting Eikenberry’s wimpy empiricism with his own macho defiance of actuality. Maybe he subconsciously wanted to fail gloriously, sending 100 ISAF troops per month to their deaths in a hopeless cause while establishing a legacy like Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who failed to conquer North Korea at the cost of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, or Gen. William Westmoreland, who to prevent the reunification of Vietnam, sent tens of thousands more to their deaths. (Some think these men were heroes.)

Maybe in the interval between that London speech and the Rolling Stone interview McChrystal changed his mind. Rather than prosecute the impossible war himself, he would leave the scene. One might detect a sort of career death-wish here. (In psychiatry a death-wish is “a desire for self-destruction, often accompanied by feelings of depression, hopelessness, and self-reproach.”) Every military officer knows that Art. 88 of the UCMJ states: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” But maybe he also had Obama pegged as someone unlikely to have him court-martialed and deny him his pension but merely likely to ask for his resignation, which is what happened.

There’s another, not necessarily contradictory, factor: all those Budweisers (“Lite” though they were) consumed during the interviews. McChrystal has a history of drinking. According to the Rolling Stone article, “He accumulated [at West Point] more than 100 hours of demerits for drinking, partying and insubordination — a record that his classmates boasted made him a ‘century man.’ One classmate, who asked not to be named, recalls finding McChrystal passed out in the shower after downing a case of beer he had hidden under the sink. The troublemaking almost got him kicked out…” This might explain the total lack of discretion; as the Greek proverb says, “Wine and children speak the truth.” How to fathom why McChrystal and his aides would talk so glibly to, of all people, a journalist of Rolling Stone which has produced so many trenchant criticisms of both the Iraq and Afghan Wars?

In any case, as a number of people have observed, McChrystal may have done Obama a big favor by his insubordination. Obama became president largely because of his opposition to the Iraq War. He has never been thoroughly opposed, describing it as a “strategic blunder,” rather than a war based on lies (whose authors he won’t prosecute), a “war of choice” rather than a clear violation of international law. He has never complained about the hundreds of thousands dead. But the antiwar movement saw him as a dove when compared to the hawkish Hillary Clinton, who as New York state senator, voted to support Bush’s war.

Ever seeking a middle position, as if to counter any far-right supposition that he’s a pacifist or socialist, Obama felt he had to endorse the Afghan War as one of “necessity” following the 9-11 attacks. (He surely knows that those attacks involved only a couple of Arabs who’d actually trained in Afghanistan and that the Taliban had little to do with them. He knows that al-Qaeda has long since been driven out of the country. But he had to embrace one of the wars and to argue that Bush had “dropped the ball” in going to war in Iraq while ISAF forces were getting bogged down in Afghanistan.) Given his position, the brass thought they could, to use McChrystal’s word, “intimidate” him into escalation. And they did, overruling Biden.

(By the way, notice how Biden’s no Dick Cheney. And however politically pro-Israel he may be, his OVP isn’t a nest—as Cheney’s was—of amoral ideologues hell-bent on using lies to service Israel’s objectives. Recall how the former vice president accompanied by his aide “Scooter” Libby repeatedly marched to the Pentagon to demand war on Iraq, and how he got his way forcing the intelligence community to disseminate total lies to justify the Iraq invasion? Biden’s not going to march on the Pentagon demanding to get his way. In any case, he’ll defer to Obama’s judgment, whereas Cheney shaped Bush’s judgment, at least during his first term.)

Obama has now fired two Commanders of the ISAF forces while giving the military almost 50,000 more troops, bringing the force to about the size of the Soviet forces in the 1980s—who were defeated and driven out by Taliban-types. The new Commander, Gen. David Petraeus, and his boss are both ostensibly committed to the present “COIN” strategy although one of its prime features–relative restraint in the sort of bombing that kills civilians and infuriates Afghan public opinion–may be under review. Reports emphasize how the U.S. troops think more bombing will make them less vulnerable. (If you just kill everyone in the neighborhood, you, as the foreign presence, will be more secure.)

We’ll have to see what comes of that. Common sense suggests that more bombing will produce more resistance to the occupation, more anger at Karzai and what Eikenberry calls a “political ruling class that [does not provide] an overarching national identity that transcends local affiliations and provides reliable partnership.” Meanwhile the mercurial (and according to some reports sometimes opiated) Karzai wants U.S. support given his tiny political base but also wants to widen that base by criticizing ISAF, calling for a withdrawal date, and on one occasion (April 2010) threatening to join the Taliban. (Rejoin, I should say. Few know that he was briefly the Taliban regime’s first foreign minister in 1996.)

McChrystal’s insubordination might ultimately profit Obama by allowing him to step back from his pro-war position which is now rejected by the majority of U.S. citizens. (A June 2010 ABC News-Washington Post poll shows 53% say the war isn’t worth fighting.) He could opt a version of Biden’s model of “Chaos-stan” in which the people of the country are left to resolve their own issues, while the U.S. strives to ensure that al-Qaeda does not return. Al-Qaeda is in Pakistan and Yemen now, from which plots can be hatched as easily as in Afghanistan (or Germany, or the U.S.). It does not need its former redoubt. And Obama does not need the Afghan war to boost his popularity.

Gary Leupp is a Professor of History at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history. He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu. Read other articles by Gary.

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  1. teafoe2 said on July 5th, 2010 at 1:24pm #

    I don’t know how useful it is to speculate about what motivates these strange characters beyond noticing that the one clear beneficiary of their cumulative actions since 2001 has been the state of “israel”. But something occurred to me which may have a bit of entertainment value:

    It seems to me that McChrystal pulled a Mike Tyson. Like Mike he found himself in a losing situation and he wanted out. Mike couldn’t just take a dive or refuse to continue; he needed to find a way to get the fight stopped without exposing himself as a coward. Inspiration came to him: he bit his opponents ear, chewing on it vigorously until the referee intervened.

    Similarly, McChrystal couldn’t just resign his command, which would have been perceived by his admirers as giving up. He had to get Obama to fire him. And he found a perfect way to do just that.

    I’m sure McChrystal was quite familiar with the career of the late Geo Patton whose achilles heel was his carelessness with words in the presence of civilian journalists, so I think he had to know what he was doing, at least at some level?