Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Stanley McChrystal Goes Off

What made Stanley McChrystal open himself and his staff to a reporter from Rolling Stone? Clearly, he wanted the story to get out. I think it is fair to say that no one rises to that level of command authority without being more than usually aware of the consequences of their actions. Link to the Rolling Stone article here.

But what motivated him to take such a step? Most of the time when we ask about human motivation we talk about hypotheticals. Here, we have an actual situation, where it looks like a commanding general has committed career suicide.

Motivational researchers ask whether people are driven by emotion or whether they are rational actors. You may be aware of the important debate on this topic within the field of behavioral economics. Link here.

Did McChrystal and his staff become emotionally overwrought about the difficulties of the war? Did they just snap? Did the heat of Afghanistan, the time away from home, and the frustrations of fighting an elusive and nearly invisible enemy, finally get to them?

Or did the general have another idea? Was there method to the madness? Was McChrystal using the press to issue an indictment of the way the political side of the conflict has been managed? Was he trying to alert the American people to a bad situation before it was too late? Was he trying to cause the president to reconsider his political strategy?

If this is true, then McChrystal was offering to sacrifice himself in the interest of salvaging the war effort? Or perhaps he was watching the war go bad and wanted to shift the blame to the White House.

You would hope that a serious person would be able to calculate the possible fallout from such a gesture. You would hope that he did not just fly off the handle. But if he did calculate his action, this does not mean that he can control all of the fallout. It simply says that he has weighed the options of speaking out and saying nothing and has concluded that the greater risk lay in saying nothing.

Regardless of the effect on McChrystal's career-- he must have known that the article could easily cost him his career-- the effect of the article will be measured in Afghanistan, not in Washington. If it marks a turning point in war strategy, then it will have served a useful purpose, no matter what McChrystal's motivation. If it does not, then the career soldier might have sacrificed his career in vain.

Of course, McChrystal did not write the title or subtitle of the Rolling Stone piece, but, surely, it conveys what he was trying to use the article to convey: "The Runaway General: Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: the wimps in the White House."

On the whole, then, I agree with Daniel Foster's take in National Review: "McChrystal is a big boy, and after a tenure that saw the leak of his bleak strategic review and the fallout from his London speech calling for an Afghan troop surge, I have a lot of trouble buying that McChrystal would make another goof of this magnitude. Which makes me wonder whether we are witnessing McChrystal falling on his sword to get the world out of the Obama administration's folly in Afghanistan." Link here.

Regardless of his intentions, McChrystal is certainly telling us something, something that he feels that we ought to know. First, he is saying that the uniformed military has no respect for President Obama. Military officers do not think that the president is up to the job; they seem to feel that he has let them down. The second meaning is that Obama's Afghanistan policy is in serious trouble. So writes Glenn Thrush in Politico. Link here.

This still leaves us facing what must count as an extreme gesture. How did it come to this?

I imagine that McChrystal tried back channel communications. Keep in mind that he has not had regular, direct conversations with the commander in chief. I also imagine that McChrystal follows press coverage of the war and has noted that the press is still too enamored of Obama to show the American people that we are being defeated in Afghanistan, or better, that we are defeating ourselves.

With other avenues of influence blocked, Gen. McChrystal has tried, perhaps for one last time, to tell the American people what is going on. Future actions will judge whether he was right or wrong.


blahga the hutt said...

An interesting piece. However, one area I disagree with you on is the part where you said McChystal was trying to tell the American people that the military had no faith in him.

I am not an Obama supporter, never have been, never will be. In fact, I dislike his policies intensely and I think they will do absolute harm to the long term future of this country.

However, we operate with civilian control over the military in this country, for better or for worse. If the military brass does not like Obama, fine. However, then they need to buckle down and do their jobs to the best of their ability or resign. That is one of the prices one must pay if they decide to put on the uniform of an American military officer.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Your point is well taken. I agree that he could have resigned if he and his staff had lost confidence in the civilian leadership and if he believed that they were not committed to the war.

Instead, he chose to fall on his sword.

I was wondering whether a general's resignation in the middle of a military campaign would have sent the same message about the civilian leadership or whether it would have looked as though he had simply quit.