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McChrystal’s Faux Pas Another Cultural Failure

June 28, 2010

Several remarkable things have come out of last week’s forced resignation of Army General and Commander of Afghan operations Stanley McChrystal. Besides a gaping lack of judgment in allowing a left-wing publication such intimate access to his staff, it turns out that McChrystal is a political liberal who voted for Obama. Why would someone who voted for his Commander-in-Chief and still publicly maintains that he supports his policy turn around and disparage him to the point of ending his career? The answer is, he didn’t. I’ve read the now-infamous Rolling Stone article a couple of times, and I still don’t see direct words of insubordination coming from anyone, least of all from McChrystal himself.

And it’s not as if McChrystal, let alone the thousands of troops in the Afghan theatre, had nothing to complain about regarding the suffocating rules of engagement enforced by Obama’s Pentagon. The prohibition of engaging in any military action that could result in civilian casualties, in fighting an enemy that frequently uses civilians as “human shields,” puts our troops in a virtually hopeless situation. Yet McChrystal not only enforced this ill-conceived policy, he apparently agreed with it. In fact, the only criticisms he allegedly expressed according to the Rolling Stone article was a questioning of Obama’s discomfort in meeting with him and other senior military leaders, and his private meeting with Obama being nothing more than a “10-minute photo op.”

In reading the Rolling Stone article, one comes away with the conclusion that the main thesis was not proving out McChrystal’s alleged “insubordination.” Rather, the main conclusion was to express the hopelessness that the counterinsurgency strategy pushed by McChrystal will succeed. Yet, the article fails in the end to explain the dissonance involved in expecting that counterinsurgency will work while at the same time advocating the restrictive rules of engagement that so hamper its effectiveness. In his conversation with some troops, the author stated that a soldier showed him the list of new regulations the platoon was given. "Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force," the laminated card reads. Even the author admitted that for a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that's like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won't have to make arrests.

Those who accuse McChrystal of disparaging his chain-of-command and thereby breaking, at the least, the protocol rules of silence, apparently do not understand that much of the ire directed at Obama’s team had to do with positions with which Obama himself disagreed. For example, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s classified (and leaked) memo that offered a scathing critique of McChrystal’s strategy also dismissed President Hamid Karzai as "not an adequate strategic partner." This is the same Karzai that Obama is trying to prop up as the true leader of the Afghan people. Why wasn’t it reasonable for McChrystal to vent his frustration about the ambassador’s memo the same way one would think Obama, if he really holds to the positions he claims, would have done?

To take the argument further, why then was the Rolling Stone expose the straw that broke the camel’s back in the Obama-McChrystal relationship? As with so many liberal arguments, this one is strong on emotion and weak on facts. Yes, it’s true that his staff and by implication McChrystal himself had little use for Vice President Biden, whose contempt for the counterinsurgency strategy was clear. But Biden, no matter his position on the war, is not the commander-in-chief, nor does he apparently align 100 percent with his boss on the war’s conduct. Other than that, we can only speculate that the Administration was looking for a reason to dump McChrystal for some time, based on his aggressive advocacy of counterinsurgency, and his loud-volume demands for more troops that made Obama look like a ditherer of the first order (which when it comes to national security matters is true).

Ironically, the selection of General David Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement is being praised by the liberal press as a bold stroke of decisive leadership by Obama. This of course is the same General Petraeus who was vilified several years ago by the Left in general and certain Senators in particular, with two of the most vocal critics named Clinton and Obama, due to his alleged stonewalling about the situation on the ground in Iraq and his advocacy of the surge that ultimately worked. But that of course was a different time, and Petraeus was George W. Bush’s general then. He’s Obama’s general now, and how this will play out in the quagmire that is Afghanistan will be a most interesting aspect of the political and military landscape in the upcoming election seasons.

There were really no surprises coming out of the Rolling Stone piece when McChrystal’s career is reviewed even superficially. He’s always been a rebel, albeit a very courageous one who has never shied away from the toughest challenges. It is precisely that combination of bravado and ego bordering on maniacal that may have brought about his downfall, however. He made the poor assumption that he could overcome the most untenable of situations and succeed where others would fail. But he also revealed a blind spot, brought on by the post-Vietnam culture of disrespect, that it was OK for his staff to vent to a member of the leftist media and get away with it—and that an unpopular war in a distant foreign land could be prosecuted successfully with liberals calling the shots—including the commanding general himself.

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