June 22, 2010

Rolling Stone

No, I have not read the Rolling Stone article on Gen. McChrystal. Yes, I was interviewed for it, but I don't think I said anything of consequence. The reporter was Michael Hastings*, who seems like a pretty stand-up guy if certainly against the war -- not that there is nothing wrong with that. I'm not sure if it's the wisest thing, though, to bring a guy who you know isn't the biggest fan of the war effort into your inner circle and just cut loose, but that's my impression of what happened. Now we have a huge distraction for everyone involved: Folks on the left are going to be screaming for POTUS to sack McChrystal for insubordination, and folks from the right are going to seize on this as evidence the Obama Administration is screwing up the war and not supporting his generals. Meanwhile, in Kabul, you have a commander dealing with a mess (that he made for himself, it must be said) that has nothing do with the Taliban or Afghan corruption.

I have long felt that a crisis in civil-military relations could be a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy whereby the civilians in the Obama Administration would be so suspicious of the uniformed officer corps from the start that they would in effect create the very crisis of which they were suspicious. Now a senior military officer has bungled a media engagement to such an epic degree that he has fulfilled all of the fears of the civilian decision-makers himself.

This is not good. This is just a terrible distraction, and I feel sorry that POTUS is going to have to deal with this.

*Of course, I say this having not read the article.

UPDATE: I have now read the article, and Talledega Nights references aside, it is not good. Hastings obviously thinks counterinsurgency is a scam, and the real thrust of the article is not so much anti-McChrystal but anti-COIN. I did not feel Hastings made any effort to include arguments for the current strategy despite having conducted a lot of interviews. (He only quotes Dave Barno, a former commander in Afghanistan, in reference only to his time at West Point, for goodness sake.) But Hastings is of course well within his rights to write whatever kind of article he wishes, and Rolling Stone makes no pretence of objectvity. As far as whether McChrystal should resign or be fired, I trust POTUS is going to do a cost-benefit analysis there and arrive at a decision. This is hardly MacArthur-Truman territory, but POTUS has every right to be furious, and there are good arguments both for and against the sack. I think the key question here is how much risk POTUS wants to run with respect to the war in Afghanistan. If this were, say, the mission in Kosovo, McChrystal would already be packing his bags. But the war in Afghanistan is a different beast, and POTUS may decide he can't switch commanders 12 months out from his June 2011 deadline for beginning a withdrawal. (On the other hand, he might also decide that at this point, the well is so poisoned between McChrystal, Eikenberry and Holbrooke that he simply must get a new commander.) This is not going to make people demanding that I give a yes/no opinion as to whether McChrystal should be dismissed happy, but frankly I think POTUS has a difficult decision in front of him and that he could opt to either retain or dismiss McChrystal and have cause for doing either. I've said it once, though, and will say it again: he has every right to be furious that McChrystal put him in this situation in the first place. I really admire Stan McChrystal, but he has put his superiors in an incredibly difficult situation.

Two interesting secondary questions:

1. What the hell was Duncan Boothby thinking setting up this article with a freelance writer (who can burn bridges more easily than someone at, say, the New York Times) who already has bias against the strategy? This is just awful media management, because the writer neither gives a flip as to whether or not his article might complicate the success of the mission nor has any interest in lending any balance to his own conclusions. Head slap.

2. In a weird way, Hastings is making the argument to readers of Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone!) that counterinsurgency sucks because it doesn't allow our soldiers to kill enough people. What, pray tell, is Hastings' alternative to counterinsurgency? Disengagement from Afghanistan? Okay, but what would the costs and benefits of that disengagement be? I am frustrated by the reluctance of the legions of counterinsurgency skeptics to be honest about -- or even discuss -- the costs and benefits of alternatives. Some do, but not many.