McChrystal v Obama: Battle of the ‘Hard Hearts’?

General McChrystal's gold engraved nunchuks. Photograph by Mikhail Galustov for Rolling Stone/Redux

Yesterday U.S. top Afghanistan warrior General Stan McChrystal was very publicly called to the carpet in the Oval Office. Sources say his job is on the line. President Obama wants McChrystal to answer for comments he made in a Rolling Stone interview (July 8-22, 2010 issue).

The short form is that McChrystal disses the counterterrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, calling it “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” He outright insults Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and says he feels betrayed by the US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry. Overall, McChrystal conveys a deep-seated contempt for civilian leadership.

And, despite the “it’s a tough slog, but we are winning the Afghani  hearts and minds” rhetoric from the White House, the civil societies in the countries of our NATO allies have forced their governments to change direction on the failed war policy in Afghanistan. (Having watched The Princess Bride numerous times, they apparently learned the lesson: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”)

In the Rolling Stone article, author Michael Hastings writes:

Opposition to the war [in Afghanistan] has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. …

But facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply f*&^%d up things are in Afghanistan. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn’t prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” a senior military official in Kabul tells me.

While the White House is debating whether or not to fire McChrystal and what the fall-out might be on U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, Rabbi Arthur Waskow frames the argument differently: “The ‘strategy’ is already a failure, and the ‘civil-military issue’ is the Constitution at stake, not a failed and stupid war.”

Waskow sets Obama’s current dilemma in historical context:

Harry  Truman knew what to do: When the issue was insubordination by General MacArthur over whether to escalate a stupid war  with China that MacArthur had brought on (beyond defending South Korea), Truman fired MacArthur. (I remember Congress begging MacArthur to address a special joint session. I remember how he ended with a bathetic, bedraggled song: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”)  Right. Despite the resulting furor, the arrogant old soldier did indeed fade away.   …

McChrystal’s strategy was arrogant & stupid;  it has already failed  because it was arrogant & stupid;  and many of us, including Biden & Ikenberry, did indeed tell them so.  …

The trouble is that Obama accepted the arrogant, stupid advice from McChrystal — and now has to face the consequences in a failing and mistaken war.  When John Kennedy came new into the White House, he accepted similarly stupid & arrogant advice from the CIA about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — and when he realized how stupid it was, he fired the lot of them and refused to get trapped into more arrogance and more escalation.

Now we will see what Obama is made of: whether he has the guts and good sense of Truman & Kennedy.

But beyond the political power struggles that are as old as the military strategies of Uzziah in II Kings 15, there is a deeply spiritual issue. It is the issue of arrogance. It is always arrogance that hardens the heart and impedes the ability to listen.

“Refusing to listen breeds stupidity,” writes Rabbi Waskow. “Stupidity arising from a spiritual failure, not an IQ failure, breeds political disaster. There is a deep relationship between the arrogance of the Generals and the CIA in their contempt for China, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan — and their contempt for civilian leadership. And the contempt of BP for the oceans, the forests, the air. The obsessive belief that Conquest and Control are all that matters.”

The consequence of King Uzziah’s failed military strategy is summarized by a proverb from King Solomon: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

McChrystal – who carries around a gold, custom-made, set of nunchuks engraved with his name and four stars –  has got pride and arrogance in spades. (Read the entire Rolling Stone article to get the full experience of this.)

But Rabbi Waskow reminds that pride and arrogance are not the marks of a great military leader. Instead, he says, the Talmud teaches: “Who is the greatest [military] hero? The person who can master his own impulses … and the person who can turn his enemy into his friend.”

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor at Sojourners, blogs at www.rosemarieberger.com. She’s the author of Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House, April 2010).

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