Opportunity to hit ‘reset’

Things are moving fast.

When I started to write this column, it was not clear if Gen. Stanley McChrystal would still have his job running the war in Afghanistan by the time I finished.

He doesn’t. 

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Gen. McChrystal was known as a driven, tough, charismatic leader long before the Rolling Stone interview that threw Washington into a turmoil this week. No one earns four stars unless he has confidence in himself and his ideas and has the strength and ego to drive his agenda forward. All such generals win loyalty from their staff. They must believe in their leader, because their mission and their very lives depend on it. In McChrystal’s case his personal toughness — both physical and mental — seems to have inspired near idolatry from his staff. 

It wasn’t McChrystal, for example, who told Michael Hastings of his disdain for President Obama. The Rolling Stone reporter got that from the general’s aides, who seemed genuinely shocked that the president “clearly didn’t know anything about” the general and didn’t quite understand “who he was.” Those are the pained comments of true believers who cannot fathom that their civilian leadership does not realize the demigod it is dealing with. 

In Hastings’s telling of the story, it seems clear that a culture of military superiority and civilian inferiority was allowed to develop among McChrystal’s inner circle. That is a very dangerous atmosphere and one guaranteed to exacerbate the natural tensions that exist between civilian and military leaders of the government. That the general allowed such attitudes to become so deeply rooted that they could casually be tossed about in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter armed with a tape recorder is worrisome at best. It suggests an organization that is out of control — a rogue command that uneasily brings to mind Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that McChrystal had gone mad. On the contrary, he’s always seemed very clear and focused on his mission as he sees it. The problem is that his vision of that mission became a nearly religious belief among his staff. No one who disagreed with it had credibility with or the respect of this officer corps. 

The general and his team were so fully committed to their vision that it never occurred to anyone that allowing a reporter for a magazine like Rolling Stone unlimited access to their daily conversations and musings was not a good idea. No matter how strongly they believed in their strategy, it was a foolish mistake. One has to assume that they either did not have the savvy to understand how some of their comments might look in print or that they were so caught up in their own particular view of the world they assumed everyone would share it.

That is why McChrystal had to go. It is a bit of a stretch to consider what he did insubordination — he was, after all, executing the mission he was given. But let us not forget that he was the chief architect of that mission, that he sold it to the president and that there has been a growing number who doubt that it will ever be successful.

The general and his staff, however, seem to have decided that their way was the only way. He put too much faith in his relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and confidently predicted that after a quick military victory in Helmand Province he’d deliver a “government in a box.” Things didn’t quite work out that way. 

Despite that most recent failure, the general and his advocates of counterinsurgency still have their own unique view of the war. Some senior military officials were talking of a ramp-up in the campaign and an increase in the number of troops next summer, rather than the withdrawal promised by the president.

With McChrystal’s departure and Gen. David Petraeus’s assumption of command in Afghanistan, we have an opportunity to press the reset button on this war. Growing numbers of Americans think it is time for a new strategy, and now we have a chance to fashion one. It remains to be seen if the president has gotten that message and will use this as an opportunity to find one. 

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com

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