06.22.10

The Real McChrystal Story

The basic truth is that the military just doesn’t like Democrats, says Leslie H. Gelb. But firing one general is enough for one war. Let him stay—and talk honestly about strategy.

Here’s the real story behind the nasty, anti-Obama remarks by General Stanley McChrystal and his staff in Rolling Stone. The U.S. military, officers and enlisted ranks don’t like and don’t trust Democrats and liberals. The bad feelings are mainly about values, style and constancy more than policy. The military feel the Democrats come at common problems from a different place and don’t stick to agreed plans when the going gets rough. The Rolling Stone article barely mentions policy differences over Afghanistan or anything else. And whether or not Mr. Obama fires the U.S./NATO commander, there’s likely to be a firestorm of criticism about the White House, perhaps reaching Tea Party proportions.

Whatever righteous anger McChrystal had on his side, whatever good grounds for complaints, he and his staff had no business, and no right under the chain of command whatsoever, to say what they did to the Rolling Stone reporter, or anyone else.

After all, the nation is at war, and Americans haven’t seen such a spectacle since President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War. Well, actually, there was a similar trauma with the military less than two years ago when President Obama fired Gen. David McKiernan, then U.S./NATO commander for Afghanistan, for not being sufficiently enthusiastic about conducting a counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban. McChrystal, a known enthusiast for just such a strategy, was selected as his replacement, and the noise about McKiernan quickly faded. Criticism of the White House was also smothered by the fact that Gen. David Petraeus, the overall regional commander, strongly endorsed both a counterterrorism strategy and McChrystal. Suffice it to say that McKiernan had many allies in the military and his summary dismissal by Mr. Obama was not forgotten.

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Also very much at the forefront of military minds is the president’s push to eliminate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” guidelines regarding gays and lesbians serving in uniform. It's hard to get a fix on what percentage of the military approves of, or is willing to go along with, gays serving openly in the armed forces. But there is at the very least a strong minority fanatically opposed to a repeal of the policy. And this latter group appreciates that Republicans never would have promoted this idea. This issue is encased in an even greater tension between the military and the Democrats over religion. A large percentage of the military considers itself strongly Christian and feels that Republicans are more accepting of the faith than Democrats are. All this contributes to a broader us-versus-them conflict over values.

Stylistic tensions only make everything else worse. Military officers believe they don’t know where Democrats stand toward them whereas Republicans let them know clearly whether they agree or disagree with military positions. In my own experience, there is truth to this. Republicans and Democrats both will differ from military views on budgets and policy, but Republicans are more likely to just say so outright. Democrats, who sense military misgivings, try to fudge the differences in order to ingratiate themselves. It doesn’t work and only adds to the distrust.

Perhaps most importantly in wartime, the military feel that Republicans are much more likely to stay the course than Democrats. Most Democrats were war hawks on Vietnam, only to become doves as the war dragged on and costs mounted. A Republican Secretary of Defense Mel Laird guided U.S. withdrawals from that conflict, but never pretended he was trying to win, and the military admired his candor. Many Democrats supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, only to split off soon thereafter. And as far as the military is concerned, they smell the same sense of retreat coming from the Obama White House over Afghanistan. Obama once proclaimed the need to "defeat" the enemy in that country and now seems to be suggesting withdrawals that the uniforms deem premature.



Now, I must say two things from a personal and professional standpoint. I was opposed to the military’s 30,000-man surge in Afghanistan that Obama approved. But once the president approved the increase, I did back the decision. I felt my only alternative was to rail against the night - not my thing. Now, I do believe it’s time to adopt a flexible plan for U.S. troop reductions down to a low base for continuing support and combat operations.

I talk often to military officers about this. They don’t like it, but our conversations are serious and constructive. They aren’t having the same kind of talks with the White House, and they truly don’t know where the president stands. Is it with Vice President Joe Biden who wants something similar to my idea, or is it with Secretaries Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton who wish to take a “conditions-based” approach?

On top of this uncertainty, the military is all too aware that there’s a lot of evidence that the war is going badly. They believe it’s too early to make final judgments, but feel the White House has made some already. It’s bad news that they haven’t talked to each other seriously about the possible unwinnability of the war.

The other point I need to make is that I am friends, and even good friends, with a number of the administration and military principals. The whole lot mentioned unfavorably in the Rolling Stone story—the president, Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, and more – are the best the nation has to offer. That’s true in spades for Stan McChrystal as well. You couldn’t have a better military commander. But he is no politician, and truth be told, one can’t command a war now or ever without being a politician.

Whatever righteous anger McChrystal had on his side, whatever good grounds for complaints, he and his staff had no business, and no right under the chain of command whatsoever, to say what they did to the Rolling Stone reporter, or anyone else. As they understand far better than the rest of us, they are at war; the lives of our men and women are at stake, and so are the fortunes of the United States. Commanders should salute in public and in notable private conversations. Period. End of story. If they disagree with policy, take it up the chain of command, vigorously, but privately.

True to his good instincts, Gen. McChrystal quickly apologized for what he and his staff said. And I believe he did so sincerely. This is a good man.

I don’t want to see another change of command in Afghanistan. Booting Gen. McKiernan was enough for one war. Perhaps, somehow, the White House can work it out and must do so in the closest consultations with Defense Secretary Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, and General Petraeus.

President Reagan and his Chief of Staff James Baker had plenty ground to fire their budget director David Stockman in the early '80s when he frontally trashed Reagan’s tax-cutting policy. Instead, they took him publicly to the "woodshed" for a hard spanking and subsequent recantation. Such insubordination is worse in war than in budgeting, but somehow I’d prefer the woodshed to the ash heap. Let the general’s very bad mistake be the occasion for a serious, no-baloney conversation between the White House and the Pentagon brass on Afghanistan. It is the minimum decent thing to do for the troops.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.