A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thoughts on McChrystal, Afghanistan, and the IISS Speech

Sometimes a really serious debate gets politicized to the point where politics starts to dominate over the genuine issues in the debate. That has probably already happened on health care, but that's a domestic US issue. Afghanistan is another matter, and it shouldn't be filtered too much through a domestic political lens. There are serious questions about where we go from here: a counterinsurgency strategy (as urged in the McChrystal report), or a more limited counter-terrorist strategy, said to be favored by VP Biden and others, or some kind of all-in commitment, or disengagement? These are real, and serious, issues.

First off, General McChrystal (having already had his say in a 66-page report that I've already recommmended everybody read) gave a presentation at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London. (Video, non-embeddable apparently, is available from IISS here, and a PDF transcript here.) The actual presentation is not much different from the McChrystal report, which is fuller and of course more nuanced. But apparently the presentation, combined with response to some Q and A, has set some folks off, screaming that this is a violation of civilian control of the military. Bruce Ackerman in the Washington Post went so far as to draw a parallel to Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman. Really? It seems to me McChrystal restated the opinions he stated in his report to the Secretary of Defense, which the Pentagon declassified, and merely answered a few questions giving his own opinions. And also found himself involved in British domestic politics.

A few folks who have actually worn the uniform and know whereof they speak seem to agree: Mark Grimsley, for example. McChrystal's prescriptions and recommendations may be wrong, but they've been made public by persons above his pay grade, and he has a right to defend them publicly. Policy decisions remain with the civilian political leadership. I'm sure he didn't speak at IISS without full approval from his own chain of command. (Which is Petraeus and the JCS.)

Let's not get overheated here. Afghanistan is a very serious issue. But MacArthur/Truman? Come on. MacArthur was writing published letters to political figures directly criticizing the civilian leadership. This isn't even McClellan/Lincoln in the Civil War, when McClellan famously returned to his home and ignored the fact that the President was waiting for him in his parlor, and went upstairs to bed instead. This is simply defending a position which has been published by his own superiors in a public, and highly professional, forum. It should be debated. The New York Times ran a selection of 10 expert recommendations, of varying approach. That's what we need here: debate on the merits, not inflamed rhetoric.

I'm far from sure I agree with McChrystal, but I know I've never worn a uniform other than that of the Boy Scouts of America, and while I enjoy military history I also recognize the dangers of being what the pros like to call the "82nd Chairborne," all those Barcolounger generals who know more than folks like McChrystal (two masters' degrees, Ranger Badge, Special Ops Badge, commanded Joint Special Operations Command, headed the Joint Staff, division commander in the 82nd Airborne, etc. etc.)

I hope the reports that he's in the doghouse with the President are sensationalized. I just don't see that the IISS speech went much beyond what he said in the report, which his superriors, not he, declassified.

I hope this doesn't become a military-versus-civilian control issue, since this isn't MacArthur versus Truman. It's a debate over strategic approach, and that needs to be decided according to defined objectives (by definition, a civilian decision) and the means to achieve them (where military expertise is essential) and how to best apply available resources (political again) to achieve a tactical result (the domain of the military). False dichotomies (left/right conflicts; civilian/military conflicts; partisan rivalries or electoral concerns) rarely illuminate. Human lives are at stake, both allied and Afghan. It's too important to let ideological quarreling and bickering distract us. This needs close study, clear thought, and realistic assessment, not ideological knee-jerk reaction. War may indeed be to important to be left to the generals, as Clemenceau noted. But it's also to important to be left to pollsters and political spinners. Civilian leaders need to take it seriously. They need the best military advice from their military practitioners. So far I've seen no sign that McChrystal is doing anything other than offering that advice, and will salute and obey when the decision is made.

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