The problem with owning a military strategy the way Gen Stanley McChrystal owned the counterinsurgency strategy at the center of the war in Afghanistan, is that it’s hard to admit it’s not working. It might be easier just to get fired.
Are we really supposed to believe that McChrystal knew so little about journalism or the magazine that he couldn’t have anticipated what kind of material would end up in his Rolling Stone profile? And more to the point, is it conceivable that another story from just two years ago somehow escaped his attention: the Esquire profile of Admiral William Fallon that led to his swift resignation?
On some level, most indiscretions can be seen as a loss of faith.
Meanwhile, in a short follow up to profile that toppled McChrystal, Michael Hastings writes at Rolling Stone:
President Obama, in announcing the replacement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal moments ago, sought to reassure the American people about the war in Afghanistan. “This is a change in personnel,” he declared, “but not a change in policy.”
That’s precisely the problem.
Changing generals isn’t likely to resolve the real trouble in Afghanistan: the fundamental flaws in the U.S. strategy of counterinsurgency.
So why did the president pick David Petraeus, the most political — and media-savvy — general of his generation, to replace McChrystal? Petraeus makes sense. He’s considered the hero of Iraq, and he has the public’s trust. He won’t be caught dead calling the offensive in Marja a “bleeding ulcer,” as McChrystal did. His appointment neutralizes him as a potential (though highly unlikely) political rival for 2012. He literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency, drafting the Army field manual on the U.S. strategy that is being pursued in Afghanistan. Above all, he is a master at crafting a narrative that Americans are eager to hear. He has almost single-handedly convinced many Washington insiders that his “surge” in Iraq resulted in some kind of major victory in Mesopotamia — a notion that is right up there with thinking that Pizza Hut has good pizza.
Here is the narrative we’re about to be sold: Things will be tough in Afghanistan. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But eventually, with good old American perseverance, violence will drop (fingers crossed). When that happens, U.S. soldiers will stop dying in large numbers — and Americans will stop paying attention in large numbers.
Thomas Barnett, whose Esquire profile led to Admiral Fallon’s undoing, suggests that Petraeus will now have a bigger say in the conduct of the war than does his own commander in chief:
If Petraeus says the strategy needs more time, then Obama’s running for re-election as a wartime president. Period. There’s just no way that Obama can overrule Petraeus on this one without wounding himself politically. McChrystal had been signaling that Obama’s summer 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing combat troops was too optimistic. Expect Petraeus to press that case — however subtly — from day one.