Journalist Michael Hastings has given Rolling Stone magazine a graphic account of the arrogance, disarray and ineptitude that distinguish what passes for President Barack Obama’s policy on Afghanistan. For those of us with some gray in our hair, the fiasco is infuriatingly reminiscent of Vietnam.
In blowing off steam to Hastings, NATO/U.S. commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his top aides seem to have decided that, at this low point in the Afghanistan quagmire, political offense is the best defense for a military strategy sinking from waist to neck deep.
In interviews with Hastings, McChrystal and his team direct mockery at many senior-level officials of the Obama administration. For instance, one of McChrystal’s aides refers to Obama’s national security adviser James L. Jones as a “clown.”
Members of McChrystal’s inner circle also quote the general as saying he was “pretty disappointed” with an Oval Office meeting and describing Obama as “intimidated” by McChrystal and other generals.
Commenting on the controversy Tuesday, Obama said McChrystal and his team had shown “poor judgment” but the President added that he wanted to speak with McChrystal directly before making any decision on firing him.
Two administration officials who are spared harsh criticism from McChrystal’s team are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who were considered key supporters of McChrystal’s insistence last year that Obama boost U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to about 100,000.
In praise for Clinton, one of McChrystal’s entourage told Hastings, “Hillary had Stan’s back during the [last fall’s] strategic review.” Another aide added, “She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.’”
As for Gates, McChrystal spared his boss from criticism perhaps still expecting support from the chameleon-like Pentagon chief, who will first want to check the surrounding foliage before selecting the best camouflage color.
However, in a statement on Tuesday, Gates said McChrystal had committed “a significant mistake” in the handling of the Rolling Stone interviews.
In Hastings’s exposure of the backbiting over policy in Afghanistan, the bottom line is best articulated by a predicate adjective beginning with the letter “f” and ending with “...ucked-up.”
Some variation of that vulgarism is used repeatedly by the macho McChrystal and his pseudo-macho staffers, whom Hastings interviewed at length.
Hastings’s copious quotes make it seem as if everyone but McChrystal and his merry men are responsible for the fecklessness on Afghanistan.
But their comments also betray a realization that their particular brand of can-do, cut-and-paste counterinsurgency has brought what Thomas Henry Huxley defined as tragedy; namely, “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”
McChrystal and his supporters have failed miserably and they know it, but they lack any measure of being gracious — or honest — in defeat.
Worse still for McChrystal is the fact that his archrival, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, now ambassador to Afghanistan, has been proven correct “beyond reasonable doubt,” so to speak, in challenging McChrystal’s adolescent views regarding how to turn the Afghan mess around.
Last year, Eikenberry told Obama that McChrystal’s whiz-bang counterinsurgency strategy was nonsense, and that Obama should look beyond a military solution.
Anyone with a modicum of experience can now see that it was Eikenberry who had it right during last year’s policy review. The texts of two cables he sent to Washington in early November were published in the New York Times. [For more on Eikenberry-McChrystal, see “Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning.”]
The Rolling Stone article is also strike two for McChrystal's insubordination. His first strike came last fall when his recommendation for 40,000 additional troops was leaked to the press. He also publicly dismissed a more targeted approach toward attacking al-Qaeda terrorists reportedly advocated by Vice President Joe Biden.
The leak of McChrystal’s recommendation came well before Obama had decided on a course of action, but the timely disclosure cornered the President, who didn’t dare push back against his generals and remind them about the U.S. principle of civilian control of the military.
In an ironic twist – since the leak of his memo cornered Obama on the Afghan “surge” – McChrystal complained to the Rolling Stone's Hastings that he felt “betrayed” by the leak of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables to Washington.
“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” the general said. “Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
Does that not suggest that McChrystal is fearful of failure — and of taking the blame?
What is clear is that there is not enough room in Kabul for both McChrystal and Eikenberry. One of them has to be given his marching orders, and I would not rule out the possibility it will be Eikenberry.
This would be bereft of all logic; rather it would be testament to Obama’s fear of McChrystal — not to mention the President’s apparent inability to understand that Afghanistan amounts to Vietnam Redux.
As for how McChrystal’s inner circle views Vice President Biden, the Rolling Stone article recounts a joke in which McChrystal mentions Biden’s name and one of the general’s top advisers replies, “Did you say ‘Bite me’?”
After publication of the Rolling Stone article, some pundits are predicting McChrystal will be fired — as he should have been last fall. [See, for instance, “Should Obama Fire Gen. McChrystal?”]
The general is now back in Washington to face the music. Reportedly, he has prepared a letter of resignation. But Obama might prefer a well-orchestrated minuet with the general rather than a requiem. Maybe McChrystal is even expecting a chorus of “he’s a jolly good fellow” from the “intimidated” President.
That’s not how it’s always been. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur issued an unauthorized statement containing a veiled threat to expand the Korean War to China at a time when Truman was preparing to enter peace negotiations with North Korea and China, MacArthur was fired in place.
One strike and MacArthur was out — because Truman could take the heat. In contrast, Obama has shown himself to be an accommodating fellow on issue after issue. It seems far from certain he would fire the White House groundskeeper, even if caught urinating on the flowers in full view of summer tourists.
Little can account for Obama’s promotion of McChrystal to his current post, except for a strange blend of cowardice tinged with ignorance. McChrystal had been Vice President Dick Cheney’s right-hand man in running Special Forces hit-squad assassins and torturers in Iraq.
For these endeavors, McChrystal has accumulated a fearsome following of what might be called the “worst of the worst” among both the U.S. military and Blackwater-style mercenaries. Here is Hastings on McChrystal’s entourage:
“The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators, and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. ... they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority."
For good measure, Hastings adds a troubling vignette. Someone apparently called his attention to what Hastings calls “a piece of suspense fiction” written by McChrystal for the literary magazine at West Point while he was studying there. Hastings includes a description of the short story:
“The unnamed narrator appears to be trying to stop a plot to assassinate the President. It turns out, however, that the narrator himself is the assassin, and he’s able to infiltrate the White House: ‘The President strode in smiling. From the right coat pocket of the raincoat I carried, I slowly drew forth my 32-caliber pistol...I had succeeded.’”
To be on the safe side, though, Obama may wish to put on a bulletproof vest before he meets with McChrystal on Wednesday.
Obama might be forgiven for fearing for his own personal safety, particularly if he has read James Douglass’s book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died & Why It Matters.
Kennedy inherited a senior military that then-Under Secretary of State George Ball called a “sewer of deceit.” They lacked confidence in Kennedy’s steadfastness before the menace of Communism, and salivated over how to maneuver the young president into military confrontations. These included operations to provoke war with Cuba, the Soviet Union, China, North Vietnam — you name it.
The senior military and the CIA bitterly resented Kennedy’s adamant refusal to be mouse-trapped into ordering U.S. forces to rescue those Cuban counter-revolutionaries marooned on the beach of the Bay of Pigs and send in U.S. troops to get rid of Fidel Castro once and for all.
A lesser-known challenge to Kennedy came in early March 1962, when JCS Chairman Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer proposed a plan called “Operation Northwoods” to justify a U.S. invasion of Cuba. Working from declassified documents for his book Body of Secrets, James Bamford gave the following concise description:
“Operation Northwoods, which had the written approval of the Chairman and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called for innocent people to be shot on American streets; for boats carrying refugees fleeing Cuba to be sunk on the high seas; for a wave of violent terrorism to be launched in Washington, D.C., Miami, and elsewhere.
“People would be framed for bombings they did not commit; planes would be hijacked. Using phony evidence, all of it would be blamed on Castro, thus giving Lemnitzer and his cabal the excuse, as well as the public and international backing, they needed to launch their war.”
Kennedy rebuffed the JCS, creating still more bad blood that eventually would help seal his fate, in my opinion.
In his book, James Douglass lists some of the other grievances held against the young president by the super-patriot Joint Chiefs of Staff, who thought of themselves as self-appointed, authentic guardians of the United States against the Communist threat — not the Constitution they took an oath to defend, if it got in the way.
During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the top military were aghast at Kennedy’s unwillingness to risk war with the Soviet Union by invading Cuba. After Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev found a way to stop at the brink of nuclear catastrophe, both saw more clearly than ever a mutual interest in preventing another such occurrence.
This led to a sustained backchannel dialogue from which the Joint Chiefs were excluded, and of which they were highly distrustful.
The kiss of death — literally, I am persuaded — came when Kennedy ordered the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from Vietnam by the end of 1963 and the bulk of the rest of them by 1965.
To the senior military that was proof positive that Kennedy was soft on Communism, which — if you can believe it — was an even more heinous offense in those days that being soft on terrorism is today.
President Lyndon Johnson knew no better than to let himself become captive to the same military leaders — the more so, since he was determined not to be the first U.S. president to lose a war. They assured him the war in Vietnam — sorry, I mean the counterinsurgency — could be won.
And they were sure they knew best how to do that. (As a result, young Army infantry officers like me were required to educate ourselves on the writings of Che Guevera and Mao Zedung, but, alas, not those of the more profound military strategist, Sun Tzu, from two and a half millennia earlier.)
There was a conventional side to the Vietnam War as well, and conventional provocations. A prime example is the U.S.-military-provoked incident in the Tonkin Gulf on Aug. 2, 1964.
Under severe pressure from the Joint Chiefs and other senior military, President Lyndon Johnson ordered Defense Secretary Robert “we-were-wrong-terribly-wrong” McNamara to use the faux-incident to deceive Congress into approving the fateful Tonkin Gulf resolution to “justify” seven years of additional war against the Vietnamese Communists.
William Fulbright, then chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, later said that the thing he regretted most during his tenure was letting himself be snowed by the military into pushing for approval of the Tonkin Gulf resolution.
And George Ball added: “There’s no question that many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing [North Vietnam] ... [T]he sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation."
Pentagon Papers truth-teller Daniel Ellsberg, of all people, has said that President Lyndon Johnson has not been given enough credit. For what, you might ask? Well, Johnson let himself be persuaded by the military, but only up to a point.
In a talk on the 30th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg said he was convinced that Johnson and McNamara came to see their main task as protecting the country from the outlandish proposals urged on them by senior U.S. military officials, proposals fraught with the danger of widened war with China, perhaps even involving the use of nuclear weapons.
According to Ellsberg, Johnson saw a need to give the JCS just enough to satisfy them to the point where they would not resign and go public with their proposals for escalating – and “winning” – the war.
It was a difficult tightrope to walk. Johnson and McNamara lived in fear that the majority of Americans could be persuaded by arguments the administration knew to be dangerously crazy.
More sober and experienced advisers like George Ball, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Assistant Secretary of State William Bundy were advising the President simply to get out of Vietnam.
Ellsberg indicated that this option was not even seriously considered by Johnson at the time. Rather, priority was given to a middle course, providing the military with just enough to keep them quiet.
Am I suggesting that Barack Obama now faces a similar situation with respect to Afghanistan? I am. And I would cite the fawning adulation given Gen. David Petraeus, head of the Central Command, last week during his congressional testimony as, well, testimony to that.
Obama’s Afghan dilemma is this: Although the escalation that McChrystal demanded is in shambles, the general cannot be expected to leave quietly, nor with any graceful acknowledgement that he was wrong.
If he agrees to quit – and he and Petraeus blame the U.S. defeat on everyone but themselves – there will be considerable resonance. As the mid-term elections loom in November, Obama and his Democratic colleagues do not want to have to contend with charges of being soft on Communism — sorry, I mean terrorism.
It’s the same dynamic Johnson and Humphrey faced and were foiled by.
So hold onto your hats. McChrystal has given the President the unexpected opportunity to change course and leave behind the fool’s errand called Afghanistan. But the general has also thrown down the gauntlet.
I wish I were more confident that the President has the backbone to face into this critical challenge with some courage.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army infantry/intelligence officer in the early Sixties and then as a CIA analyst for the next 27 years. He is now a member of the Standing Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).
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This story was published on June 23, 2010.