nybody who has been around Washington's foreign policy elite (I have, at times had a window into that world) knows the tension between civilian leadership and various faction of the military and, indeed, between not only the services but between factions within those services. Also, most people don't understand the balance of power has shifted, over the decades, toward the Pentagon because, frankly, money talks and the Pentagon budget has a enormous influence over political realities in Congress. So, at the moment, we are as close to military rule as we've ever been as should be obvious by the MSM's obvious reluctance to criticize the military despite the overwhelming evidence of atrocities practiced by both low and high ranking personnel. It is important to understand that this civilian vs. military conflict is very much a cultural conflict between an institution dominated by southerners and red-state Republicans who have a strong need to have "enemies" to be psychically healthy and a strong disdain for people who can see both sides of issues. Life to them is a simple matter of "them and us." Frankly, these guys just consider themselves more manly than the civilians involved in FP discussions.
Illustrative of this was the NPR program To the Point. In it a sharp contrast was made between retired General Robert Scales (who represents the rising power and wealth of military contractors) and James Fallows (who represents the waning power of civilians). They did not "argue" but to those of us familiar with how things are done in Washington they were sharply disagreeing. Scales, who knows where the power lies, sounded happy and downplayed the McChrystal comments and Fallows sounded tense and angry. You can hide it in print you can work misdirection in video but in sound emotion is easily readable. I know Fallows' milleu very well and I know he knows what's at stakes here and he stated it openly--the issue is whether there is, in fact, civilian control of the military and he stated that McChrystal should be fired implying something dire if he doesn't.
If you listen to the interview you will hear nothing dramatic but I know that the interview reflects a deep conflict in Washington.
Most commentators including Ignatius imply that the McChrystal's comments were foolish. I don't think they were and I don't see any reason to believe that someone as politically savvy as McChrystal (you don't become General unless you are 100% political) would have approved the article (he and his people did approve the article) unless he meant it as a political move.
I think the timing is interesting. For months the NY Times has been honestly (to the extent that is possible) reporting on the Afghan War. When this sort of thing happens in the Times it means there has been a temperature change in Washington or the stories would have not been printed just as honest reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq war was not allowed. It is obvious that the Afghan war has not been going well. It is obvious that those around VP Biden don't think escalation was a good idea and they are, in my view, promoting the change of temperature at the Times. This is upsetting the major factions in the military and McChrystal and Scales directly reflect that thinking. McChrystal is signaling that he is not about to be blamed for the failure of the Afghan War which now seems obvious to everyone including David Petraeus if you read between the lines. That means that we will "lose" in Afghanistan and Pakistan for obvious reasons that should have been obvious on day 1 -- you have to have popular support to engage in "nation building" and you cannot get popular support if your main interest in fighting a war is to kill people and provide support and money to the most corrupt elements of the society. Despite what most Americans think people outside America are actually pretty intelligent and, in my view, far more politically astute than most Americans. Here, it is important to quote Friedman on the impossibility of the whole enterprise:
If our strategy is to use U.S. forces to clear the Taliban and help the Afghans put in place a decent government so they can hold what is cleared, how can that be done when President Hamid Karzai, our principal ally, openly stole the election and we looked the other way?
McChrystal, I believe, is seeking to move the blame away from the military (and its glorious budget that pays extraordinary sums to retired officers who style themselves as consultants and collect large pensions at the same time) and towards the guy who I think is being paid to be holding the bag when all things go sour, i.e., President Obama.
Here's the final line of the latest NY Times editorial which seems to reflect a consensus among commentators:
Whatever President Obama decides to do about General McChrystal, he needs to get hold of his Afghanistan policy right now.
Well, what he will get hold of is the bag he was meant to hold and has been avoiding. McChrystal just backed Obama into a corner. If he doesn't fire McChrystal he will embolden all military officers to take control of all levels of policy including more power to enrich themselves (yes, you heard it here I believe many top officers are, like in the rest of the world, corrupt). If he does fire McChrystal he will be held responsible for the inevitable defeat in Afghanistan and a general is sure to run against him in the next election.
what appears to be a tempest in a teapot reflects a bare-knuckled fist-fight for power going on right now. It will not be reported in that way of course.
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