Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Cultural Thing

I admit that I don't see it. Actually, I do - it's crystal clear. But I don't get it.

The elected civilian leadership has, and must always have, full, complete and unquestioned control over the military. That's obvious; it's a fundamental part of democracy.

How the control is applied, however, is or ought to be a matter for deliberation and calibrated calculation. Just as Israel was right to block that flotilla but not smart about it, to give a recent example. There's usually more than one way to do things, and this goes for the relationship between elected civilians and appointed generals as much as it's true about anything else.

The narrative is that everyone, left to right, agreed that McChrystal had to go: you can't have a general bad-mouthing the elected leaders (though why saying that Obama was uncomfortable at an early meeting with the generals is bad-mouthing, is beyond me. It was an observation, probably an accurate one, and not denigrating in any way I can see). According to the New York Times, however, this isn't so: there was a fierce argument about balancing the need to discipline the general and the possible damage to the war effort.

But it was a short argument:
The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs — a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war — Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office.
George Patton, anyone?

I read the Rolling Stone article. There was bad-mouthing in it, and jack-assing, if there is such a word. The general and his staff come off as top-notch soldiers and poor politicians, though McChrystal's relationship with Afghanistan's President Karzai indicates he's not a bad diplomat when he feels it's essential to his mission. I didn't see any insubordination, and certainly no threat to democracy. Sorry: I didn't.

But as I say, this may be a cultural thing. As I've repeatedly explained in the past, Israelis use words differently than Americans. Very differently. This isn't to say there's a right way or a wrong way. My feeling after reading the article was that Obama should have pulled in the general, given him a severe tongue-lashing, the general should have submitted his resignation, and the president should have glared at him and said "Are you kidding? You've got a job to do! Now go back and do it, and I don't want any more of this behaviour from you ever again. Dismissed".

It's not true there's no-one who can't be replaced. Sometimes, removing a key figure at a crucial moment results in significantly different outcomes. Were this not so, we'd never try so hard to replace/retain political leaders whom we feel strongly about, for example.

I, for one, am uncomfortable that there's such a broad consensus in an America at war that careless words so obviously trump carefully-planned actions. This may reflect an Israeli feeling that blunt words are better than civil ones, since they're closer to the truth; it may reflect a lifetime of living near or at real war, an experience most Americans, fortunately for them, don't have.

Barry Rubin, another Israeli who writes often in English, thinks the real problem is that McChrystal's words were mostly true.


Anonymous said...

as the Rolling Stone piece sinks I remember from it

- the general and his buddies are good at togetherness

- the grunts complaints are not amenable to high language, at least not McChrystal's

- Hillary Clinton is the only person who gets praise (and Bill Clinton was at the game getting the US into the next World Cup round i.e. there will probably be pictures of him with victors)

and Barry Rubin got it right about Gibbs (last paragraph)
"All options are on the table," Gibbs said.
(according to Politico)
- a general with troops in the field is not the same as a BP executive.


Anonymous said...

Obama to read and to listen to
would I feel reassured by it?
(but I can compare it only to how I on the ground was made to feel by CEO speeches)


(is it true that this is only the second firing of this kind after McArthur?)

Anonymous said...

could it be that the difference is that a much bigger part of the IDF has to think and to operate like special ops due to the geographics of it all?
I once read a long piece on the logistics involved in getting a US regular army unit to deploy - where things have become that intricate the chain of command has to be absolutely predictable and reliable i.e. more often than not tolerating stupidity and absurdity causes the lesser damage


OT: in this book talk Alan Furst mentions that the Brits took 10.000 dock workers out of Thessaloniki to Haifa to build something there
- these 10.000 then weren't around when we went in ...

Anonymous said...

in the corporate world we tend to put a lot of blame on those who put the wrong person in a position which doesn't suit his talents.

And no matter how much we may have objected to a boss while under him, once he is removed we direct the blame and the fury to the higher ups

- lets hope this doesn't hit Petraeus
- the soldiers who face the bullets and the IEDs deserve a general who is good for them.


Anonymous said...

Richard Kemp - pro-Israel-voice - on McChrystal

The fatal flaw of a war hero: overconfidence
It was the implacable special forces culture that brought General McChrystal low

AKUS said...

McChrystal spoke truth to power, and that has always been dangerous.

He reminds me of Raful (Raphael Eitan) in the Israeli context.

Bryan said...

Although Obama dismissing McChrystal is sort of justified, there's also the fact that Petraeus is considered a political rival to Obama. Petraeus is popular with Americans, and Obama is increasingly unpopular (the media here points out on a regular basis how the Gulf states are less satisfied with Obama's treatment of the oil spill than with Bush's treatment of Katrina), and people are speculating that Petraeus may run for President. (Petraeus has repeatedly disavowed any intent on doing so, but that really doesn't mean anything because he's a sitting general anyway and not allowed to make those kinds of political statements.)

By giving Petraeus McChrystal's job, he has put Petraeus in a perilous political position. If the war in Afghanistan goes poorly, Petraeus can be used as a scapegoat (because he is directly responsible for Afghanistan now), and if the war in Afghanistan goes well, Obama can take the credit.

4infidels said...


If, as Obama said yesterday, that there is no disagreement between himself and McChrystal on strategy and McChrystal has always obeyed "my" (Obama's) orders, then he shouldn't have been fired because of the Rolling Stone article.

Here is what I believe, IMHO, is going on beneath the surface:

McChrystal thinks that winning over the local population is the key to counter-insurgency and victory in Iraq. Thus, McChrystal favors nation-building as the most important aspect of this war. His heart is in this project big time, though I think neither his means nor his ends serve American interests.

Obama has no genuine enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan, as he looks at the projection of American power as inherently a negative force in the world. However, he doesn't want a debate over ending our presence in Afghanistan (which during the campaign he said he supported) that would take attention away from (and perhaps arouse some opposition from his more centrist Democrat supporters) his domestic agenda of radically transforming America. So he goes along half-heartedly with McChrystal's strategy, not because he is focused on military victory, but because he doesn't mind seeing the military become social workers and nation-builders--in fact, he thinks that is a much more preferable role for them than fighters. If they have to be there, then let them hand out goats and build mosques.

I also think Bryan is seriously on to something as well.

4infidels said...

One thing should be noted: If McChrystal can't tell that a reporter from Rolling Stone is not his ally, then perhaps that explains why he believes that somehow, someway, at some point, Afghans are going to reject "violent extremism" and corruption based on seeing how nice those American are...

4infidels said...

And yes, most of what McChrystal said about Obama, Jim Jones and others is true.

4infidels said...

There is no good reason for an American presence in Afghanistan. In fact, there is no good reason for an American presence in Iraq, unless Iraq will serve as a base for destroying Iran's nuclear program and quelling any reaction from Iran or its terrorist subsidiaries following strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Iran presents a terribly dangerous threat to the US if it acquires nuclear weapons. Corruption and tribal/sectarian fighting among Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a national security concern for Americans; it is a way of life that is beyond our sphere of influence.

If the ruthless and brutal Soviet Red Army couldn't pacify and civilize Afghanistan, how are American soldiers humiliating themselves by going native in order to win hearts and minds going to accomplish the impossible task of building a functioning nation-state where the locals have no conception of such a thing. We wrote sharia into both the constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But even if we didn't, there is a general view among the population that American kindness and financial assistance is a plot to pull them away from their traditional and Islamic values and toward a Western (and perhaps Christian) way of life. In fact, they are correct. So please tell me, why is an Afghanistan that is full of ethnic and tribal rivalries, fighting amongst itself, illiterate and backward worse for America than an Afghanistan with paved roads, modern military equipment and training, internet access to radical Muslims around the world, new mosques for radical Imams can reach larger audiences, and a unified populace that no longer has to fear the clan in the village down the road?

Anonymous said...

the Rolling Stone piece said Obama gave the job to McChrystal on Petraeus' recommendation also.

If those (of us) who ask if he was a case of a first class man given the wrong job (side-stepped to reach his level of not-so-competent, playing the strutting poster-boy is a hugely important talent in its own right and depending on the context equally important) are right, then Petraeus showed as poor judgment as Obama.

All three Petraeus, Odierno and McChrystal were in the same class. Odierno has been denied his chance for real victory in Iraq when he was forced to let troops go which he wanted to keep in order to finish what looked at the time promising to him, now McChrystal is gone and probably lost to what he is really first class at also and the last of the 3 still big is Petraeus or are there others, younger ones maybe of the same caliber and ambition, waiting behind?

Again: why this parading of Hillary as a tough one after a soldier's heart?

(after all I've seen and heard from the 3, I like Odierno best)

RK said...

Briefly, I think seeing this as Obama firing McChrystal in a fit of pique for hurting his feelings is the wrong way to read it. A better way is to realize that this is exactly how Obama would act if he was genuinely committed to COIN, but needed leverage against the various advisers who support a limited counter-terrorism strategy. As Marc Thiessen points out, if McChrystal hadn't been fired, he'd constantly be walking on eggshells in his interactions with administration officials, and lose the ability to effectively advocate in favor of COIN.

In that light, Obama, by picking Petraeus, is effectively lashing himself to the mast: Petraeus now has an enormous amount of leverage, even over the President (can you imagine Obama firing Petraeus in a year?).

I admit I found Barry Rubin's piece bizarre. The only actual example of McChrystal's supposed truth-saying he cites is the bit about Obama seeming ill-prepared and disengaged at the generals' meeting. And he follows it up, not with any evidence that it's true, but with a bit of bluster: "Does this surprise you? Do you doubt that it is true?" Well, I don't know, and neither does Rubin. If it's not true, you can see why the administration might be angry.

Or this: "The article argues that Obama accepted McChrystal's basic strategy but that still the war is going badly. This lays responsibility for the failure with the White House." Uh, no it doesn't. It could also be (and in fact is) that the author, like Rubin, is a critic of McChrystal's basic strategy, and thinks the war is going badly for that very reason.

And finally, Gibbs didn't "announce this outcome" (the firing) beforehand. He said that all options were on the table. Had he ruled out accepting McChrystal's resignation in advance, then he would have found it more embarrassing to hear McChrystal out and then fire him, as Rubin suggests he should have done.

Anonymous said...


whether Afghanistan is relevant or not probably depends on the basic worldview you prefer.

one thinks "it" is going to be decided on land (Halford Mackinder) and then The Tibetan Highland and Afghanistan are crucial "pivots"
the other thinks it is going to be decided at sea - those advocating sea are referring constantly to a guy named Mahan - I guess it is this one

probably for real life a sound balance of both is best and hopefully somewhere in the belly of those operations are somebig brains fighting over what balance between the two is right
- also I'd like to know if there is a dominating theorist for the air force - I haven't heard about one yet.

Andrew Sullivan titles "Obama: Hostage to Petraeus" - Even though my misgivings about Petraeus are quite big I wouldn't call him a kool-aid-drinker like Suliivan does, after all my favourite in it all Odierno believed he had a good chance to turn Iraq into something real and he was with Petraeus in the "surge"


will Petraeus now be too busy for some time to make another pitch for Israel?

could the whole thing be seen as a bit of Obama cutting Petraeus down a bit? McChrystal came by Petraeus recommendation said the Rolling Stone.


Anonymous said...

in case anybody feels like being totally unserious in a very serious way for a moment or two - enjoy!

teaser around 4:00 the European song contest comes up
The One about the UN

teaser ... homosexuality is spread by dental floss
The One About Iran

... homosexuality is spread by dental floss

Andrew said...

Yaacov, I really do think this is a cultural thing. All societies have a civic religion, a kind of mythos that defines the way the populace sees its government.

And in the US, the concept of civilian control of the military is either the most sacrosanct concept in our politics or the second-most sacrosanct. It's something drilled into us from the moment we take our first civics classes in elementary school. We are (rightfully, to my mind) obsessive about it.

To be sure, McChrystal's interview was more a venal sin than a cardinal one. He wasn't disobeying a direct order from Obama. He wasn't directly insulting his Commander in Chief.

But he did directly insult just about everyone else associated with the administration. And when it comes to this issue, there simply isn't a gradation of offenses.

I think we all understand that soldiers use rougher language than the average American. And we grant soldiers a lot of leeway to grumble and complain in private. But once the microphones are on and the reporter's notebook is out, the soldier has to snap in line.

Anonymous said...

I guess the "civilians control the military" is not so unique to the US as you may think - may be it is due to US-influence but for example when in the UK generals were speaking up shortly after having gone into retirement the punditry of the London Times didn't like it one bit. They found it unfair - the generals should have spoken with the politicians behind closed door, to try to do politics is not the job of ex-military etc. etc. Germany has stayed away as far as possible from anything smelling of belligerence but a military speaking out against the parliament seems almost inconceivable to me

I don't know on whom the Israelis modelled their military but the Brits seem a likely candidate at least for some basics and they seem not to go for uppity ex-generals no matter how much the public may take to them.

David Brumer said...

I'm with you. I didn't see any insubordination; certainly not worthy of dismissal. And I don't think it's cultural thing, either. I think it's a function of Obama's insecurity; he needs to be seen as not being a patsy.
Of course, what he is an amateur, one who is out of his league when it comes to int'l affairs.
McChrystal's fatal mistake was agreeing to do an interview with Rolling Stone. He should've seen the set-up a mile away.

the_raptor said...

Obama is too weak to have kept McChrystal on. A bigger man could have afforded to chew him out then keep him; but a bigger man would have had a working relationship with him in the first place, so this unwise (or calculated, as you prefer) release of long simmering-frustrations with the administration wouldn't have happened in the first place.

McChrystal's aides called Obama "unprepared" and "intimidated" in the article. Obama had to chose between keeping McChrystal and looking intimidated, or firing him and looking petulant. He chose petulant.

Anonymous said...

David Brooks on private kvetching and the culture of exposure prevelent amongst some media.

The statements in the Rolling Stones article about Jim Jones and Richard Holbroke, while crudely expressed, were quite accurate.

Anonymous said...

David Brooks:
"The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see."

and strangely enough the more they "expose" the more opaque the exposed seem to become to me

Putting McChrystal who had operated below the radar all the time into a high media exposure job without proper training is a management mistake i.e. Obama's and Petraeus' and whoever else made that come to pass.

Also reading Brooks' piece made me remember how very well our early politicians like Adenauer could be read (one may not have liked him but one had an idea who he was) and how amazed I am always anew at how genuine Churchill comes across to me in his writings. All gloss-overs seem perfectly transparent and translatable whereupon to this day I have no idea what kind of a woman Merkel is - in the sense that would I enjoy chatting with her iat a casual encounter in town.

Whereas today the US got a "brand" for a president who beneath it may or may not be a wily politician - who is to know - it's undercover now all of them and a specialist in undercover became the latest victim.

and yes petulant is the right word
almost the first thing he says:
"Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult."
A president should not cater to those who think him capable of such low-minded considerations when a question of life and death is to at hand.


Anonymous said...

how very very interesting the distribution of power between the soldiers and civilians are

"Is the president allowed to put a military man on unemployment?"


Anonymous said...

And the result for US military and US media relations is: