Crystal is not glass. Strike crystal and it rings like a bell. When it breaks, crystal makes a special noise, a sound like the end of music. The other day, we heard the end of a special elegy, the 24 notes of taps, when General Stanley McChrystal furled his flag.
McChrystal was no ordinary infantryman; he chose the road not taken. Rangers are a unique fraternity where only extraordinary warriors thrive. Those who rise to the top in any calling often walk a fine line between genius and eccentricity, and soldiers are no exception. General McChrystal crossed the line more than once, but he never stepped on a land mine until Rolling Stone magazine came to do a "profile" at HQ Afghanistan.
The agent of McChrystal's demise was an effete freelancer who looks and sounds like a prep school refugee. Michael Hastings was on special assignment for a magazine whose usual fare is sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Yet, like Hugh Hefner's Playboy, Jann Wenner's Rolling Stone has cultural pretensions. Those affectations were on full display in the McChrystal issue. Lady Gaga [sic] graces the cover; equipped with a bullet brassiere on full auto. Ms. Gaga is a performance artist whose cultural niche is defined by Madonna groupies.
Like Hefner, Wenner panders to a young and, by their own definition, hip demographic of readers under 30 years of age; both publishers might charitably be described as priapic geriatrics at 84 and 64 years of age, respectively. Like all purveyors of progressive culture, Wenner has trouble separating value and vulgarity. And to no one's surprise, he consistently carries water for the left -- as a Clintonista or, more recently, as an Obama contributor.
From any perspective, we have to assume that General McChrystal and/or his staff was aware of these things and the risks of having of an antiwar zealot in their midst. The key question to be answered is: Who was using whom?
After Afghanistan, a maverick like McChrystal wasn't going to be selected for a political job like Army Chief of Staff. Hard to picture McChrystal, like the incumbent George Casey, making the rounds of the Sunday gab shows reminding citizens that the feelings of Muslims are more important than the safety of soldiers massacred at Ft. Hood, Texas. And surely McChrystal wasn't a candidate to follow Mike Mullen into the political swamp at the JCS. On the Pentagon's E Ring, Mullen is better known for social issues, like gay rights for sailors, than he is for war-fighting. There were no stars in McChrystal's future, either; he already had his four.
McChrystal is a country music fan, so no doubt he's familiar with Kristofferson's iconic line: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." When McChrystal let the fox into the Afghan hen house, he knew which huevos were in play.
Before the Rolling Stone controversy, the friction between the "White House wimps" and the military brass was the worst-kept secret in Washington. Yet the rift, from the beginning, was cultivated by the president -- and what can be described only as a cabal of divisive beltway toadies. From the start, Obama ignored the field commander, refused to define the enemy or describe the end game -- or explain to the American public why Afghanistan "is a war of necessity." The party line had three "soft" features: don't use the word "war," don't mention Islam, and restrict descriptions of the bad guys to either Taliban or al-Qaeda.
Shortly after the election, Obama put on his long pants and fired the previous ISAF commander in Afghanistan -- and then dithered for months over troop deployments. Since then, the White House has been driving on a learner's permit. In the past year and a half, the commander in chief has met the tactical commander on few occasions; McChrystal, in contrast, has met with Hamid Karzai, face to face, over fifty times during the same period. If McChrystal claims Obama is "disengaged" only on the subject of war, the general is being generous.
The hapless Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D-NV), told America that the Iraq "war is lost" just before the last American election. A newly elected vice president followed up with very public carping at General McChrystal's expense. If there were ever a toady who should be cashiered for loose lips, it's Joe Biden (hereafter known as Joe "Bite Me" to troops in the field). Biden doesn't just put his foot in his mouth; he doesn't bother to remove his shoes after he steps in something. Biden's advice on Iraq was to subdivide it -- i.e., into three new states [sic] -- as if the U.N. didn't have enough dysfunctional members.
"Team" Obama was augmented by Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry early on, both sent to Kabul, presumably, to make sure McChrystal walked the "soft power" walk. Unfortunately, neither Holbroke nor Eikenberry plays well with other adults.
Holbrooke's function in South Asia is as a dark swan. He doesn't seem to get along with anyone but himself. In the foggy world of diplomacy, androgyny, and cookie-pushing, Holbrooke stands out. He is supposed to be a special envoy, but his specialties might be limited to arrogance and petulance. Holbrooke, former Clintonista and incumbent Karzai-basher, doesn't play well with third-world leaders or allied military officers. And Eikenberry's performance isn't too far removed from Holbrooke's. Soon after arriving in Kabul, Ambassador Eikenberry started to "back-channel" McChrystal, (i.e., send critical, uncomplimentary reports back to Washington). Indeed, Eikenberry's pique seems to have been tweaked because a Brit, and not Eikenberry, was appointed "viceroy" -- a slight he seems to lay at the feet of a Karzai/McChrystal conspiracy. Eikenberry was miscast in Rolling Stone as a martinet "stuck in 1985"; the year may be closer to 1895, and the Eikenberry character could have come straight out of "Gilbert and Sullivan." On the U.N. side of Kabul, the blue helmets were having a civil war of their own. Norway's Kai Eide and his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, had a transnational shootout over the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai's election in 2009. Galbraith got fired, Karzai got a second term, and Eide took the Quisling special back to Scandinavia. Eide was and remains an ardent fan of accommodation with the Taliban. These "team" players were supplemented by a gaggle of second-guessers back in Washington, with the president's national security advisor, Jim Jones, on point. Jones' most recent contribution to the clueless sweeps was a "greedy Jew" joke spliced into a speech that was supposed to underline American support of Israel. After eighteen months in office, the Commander in Chief has traveled to several Arab, Turkish, and Muslim capitals, yet never to Israel. Mr. Obama's Islamic globetrotting sends a message consistent with Jones' taste in jokes. From the beginning, the former Marine commandant, like Joe Biden, also made loud noises that undermined or contradicted McChrystal's strategy at the front.
So what's a soldier to do when a president hand-picks him to lead the charge in combat and then allows lower-echelon cockroaches to eat his lunch? McChrystal did what any good guerrilla fighter would do: He let another insect carry a poison pill back to a dysfunctional nest. Indeed, General McChrystal performed one final service for his country: He used a press nitwit to expose a confederacy of national security dunces using the prescribed "soft" tactics -- things like toxic ridicule.
The clincher in all of this is Hillary; she comes off like the Cheshire cat, grinning from ear to ear while the Oval Office tries to put lipstick on another pig. Clinton has kept her distance: "Give him [McChrystal] what he wants," says she. If and when the Obama national security crowd self-destructs, Hilary can say "I told you so," pick up the pieces, and do a pantssuit rendition of what Bobby Kennedy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1968.
Any idea that McChrystal was insubordinate or threatened civilian authority is bravo sierra, as they say in the barracks. The general simply raised the blinds and let in some light. He even helped the young president to grow up a bit. On the day Obama let his field commander go, the president used the word "war" to describe the Afghan conflict. That's progress! Obama then appointed a third field commander in eighteen months; demoting the CENTCOM commander to replace McChrystal in Kabul. And yes, the new guy is the old David Petraeus, who, when serving in Iraq under George Bush, was vilified by the left, including then-Senator Obama, as a liar and traitor. Indeed, the same news outlets that published those scurrilous George Soros ads now celebrate the Petraeus choice as "inspired." General "Betray Us" under a Republican has morphed into General "Save Us" under a Democrat. So much for politics stopping at the water's edge. So what's the plan now? It appears the exit strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan is on schedule (according to Joe Bite Me) and Petraeus will be the happy face of at least one success, even if it belongs to the previous administration. Yet the president is still hostage to a campaign slogan, that "war of necessity." Unfortunately, the Oval Office position is already flanked left and right. The incumbent does not want to carry any war, of choice or necessity, into the next presidential cycle. And the Cheshire cat just grins and waits.
All of this highlights the distinction between politics Chicago-style and principled soldiering McChrystal-style. Given a choice between sacrifice and survival, which road do men of character take? McChrystal has answered that question: He fell on his sword. Obama will get back to us in thirteen months.
Stanley McChrystal may have furled his flag, but let's hope he has not spiked his guns. In or out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat whose name we dare not speak will get worse before it gets better. When it does, real soldiers will need to strap on their irons again. Keep your powder dry, Stan.