Well, I’ve read the article that may be the undoing of General McChrystal’s military career, and perhaps even the Afghan war itself [I wrote that sentence before I saw the breaking news that McChrystal is gone and Petraeus has been named to replace him, a good choice, IMHO]. Who would have thought Rolling Stone would make history of this sort?
Not I. And perhaps not even McChrystal and his staff—although if not, they were tremendously naive and foolish.
And apparently not Michael Hastings, the man who wrote the piece, who professes in an interview of his own with Newsweek that he failed to see the brouhaha coming:
I’m actually shocked by the response. Because usually we end up ignoring Afghanistan, so I’m quite surprised it’s creating such a stir. I knew I had some decent material to work with, but I’m surprised at the level of involvement.
Well, having now read the article itself rather than just summaries of it, color me unsurprised at the flurry of attention (or course, hindsight is 20/20). I also see no reason to revise anything I wrote yesterday, the gist of which was that (1) it’s no surprise that McChrystal and staff were annoyed at Obama; but (2) it’s a big and very unfortunate surprise that they so openly voiced their dissatisfaction in front of a reporter of any sort, much less this one.
It seems, according to the Hastings interview, that McChrystal and staff only signed on for a two-day exposure to him, but that, due to (of all things) the Iceland volcano, the relationship ended up stretching into a month-long stay. It seems they let down their guard and began to forget—even though they never should have—that he was a reporter, and that everything they did and said was fodder for the mill of his particular sensibility. If so, this was an error of major proportions on their part. But perhaps, instead, the access and exposure was a deliberate attempt to get the word out, come what may.
A few more observations on the piece itself: it’s written in the modern style in which liberal use of the f-word telegraph’s the writer’s toughness and grit (and no, it’s not just the military who are cussing freely, it’s the author himself in his more descriptive moments, such as this one, that occurs very early in the article, and gives you an idea of its macho tone):
McChrystal takes a final look around the suite. At 55, he is gaunt and lean, not unlike an older version of Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn. His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.
There’s actually a great deal more in the piece than the revelations about McChrystal and the Obama administration and its representatives, although that’s all we seem to hear about. There’s a lot of griping about the rules of engagement in this war, an important and valid controversy in any asymmetrical conflict in which we fight against a clandestine group infiltrated among the general population of a country.
Hastings throws in some gratuitous observations that are meant, I would guess, to be uncritically accepted by his generally liberal readership. For example, he writes, “A few days later, [McChrystal] echoed the [Bush's] Mission Accomplished gaffe by insisting that major combat operations in Iraq were over”—when in fact they were over; Hastings makes no attempt to distinguish between major combat operations against Saddam Hussein’s military forces (which in fact was the aspect of the war to which Bush and McChrystal were referring) and the very different insurgency struggle which formed subsequently.
In other portions of his piece, Hastings makes it clear that he does not believe counter-insurgency operations can succeed in Afghanistan, and refers to their having been based at least in part on our failed policies in Vietnam. What he ignores is what many people ignore—the revisionist history of that war, which I’ve written about in a series of posts that can be found here—that indicate that the war against the Vietnamese insurgency was actually won on the battlefield but lost in the arena of public opinion in this country, shaped in part by a hostile press.
No one can possibly be happy with the Hastings article, with the possible exception of Hastings himself—who is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame and may try to segue it into more of the same—the editors of Rolling Stone, and Hillary Clinton, the single politician who comes off with praise in the Hastings piece. Even President Obama is probably highly displeased. The article not only exposes him to ridicule, it forces him into a situation in which he must make a decision (even failing to let McChrystal go is a decision of sorts), and in which none of the possible choices seems like a good one at this critical juncture in the Afghan conflict [NOTE: again, with the news of Petraeus’s appointment, I think Obama made the best decision possible, actually. Maybe it will even turn out to be a good one, and the whole thing a fortuitous opportunity to improve the Afghan situation—unless Petraeus is hobbled in the same way McChrystal was. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that he will be far more savvy about PR and press relations. Ever since Vietnam, these considerations have become nearly as important as the conduct of a war itself, since the military should always assume the press is hostile to the endeavor.]
[ADDENDUM: Here’s a cynical comment found at Gateway Pundit:
Obama picked Gen. Petraeus to destroy his career, and make it so that he can’t run in 2012.
I don’t think that was Obama’s primary motivation. I think he made this choice in an attempt to get out of a bad situation and also possibly retrieve something of value in Afghanistan. After all, to a certain extent, Obama “owns” the Afghan conflict now.
But if Petraeus’s mission does not succeed (and there’s a good chance it will not), it would certainly have the added perk (from Obama’s point of view) of hurting Petraeus’s chances of a successful run for office in 2012, if he has that in mind. But I’m not at all sure he has that in mind.]