by Victor Davis Hanson
NRO’s The Corner
Obama had no choice but to do what he did, and the wise Petraeus move was obviously a mitigating factor. Obama’s speech, despite the customarily excessive use of “I,” “me,” and “my,” was workmanlike and wise in its emphasis on continuity of strategy.
In this regard, the more one reads the Rolling Stone hit piece, the more one has to be disturbed. There is much talk among conservatives to the effect that it was only McChrystal’s staff, and not the general himself, who said things to a reporter that were insubordinate. (“In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side.”)
But McChrystal is reported as deprecating the vice president (“‘Are you asking about Vice President Biden?’ McChrystal says with a laugh. ‘Who’s that?’”), and he apparently described to subordinates a meeting with his commander-in-chief in a way that reduces Obama to a fool. (“‘It was a ten-minute photo op,’ says an adviser to McChrystal. ‘Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his f[**]king war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.’”)
There are plenty of other causes to worry: McChrystal’s derision of a dinner with a French diplomat, the entire notion of letting off steam to a leftwing reporter in Paris during a war, even the revelation of whom McChrystal voted for (i.e., Obama). Once one digests all the ramifications of this, I think one will see this is not a partisan issue, but one of judgment and deference for the chain of command.
Surely if a colonel or a major gave the same sort of interview about the general, and such an officer’s subordinates told the press the same sorts of things about McChrystal (much less Obama), he would be gone yesterday. I recall in Iraq overhearing a conversation among some reporters. One asked out loud, “Do you think Petraeus will ever run for office?” Another piped up, “Maybe, but who knows on which side?” — the point being that even though Petraeus worked with the Bush administration, and even though the Left took after him, he deliberately set a tone of professional nonpartisanship. He would never have disclosed to a reporter his past voting record, or had subordinates relay that information to the press. And he would never have disclosed any of his private concerns about Washington competency to a reporter, much less in a long-running conversation with a pesky Rolling Stone tag-along.
The story does not start off very well; after all, we are introduced to General McChrystal in the article as he gives the finger to his chief of staff. (McChrystal was grousing about having to go to the above-mentioned dinner with a French diplomat. “‘The dinner comes with the position, sir,’ says his chief of staff, Col. Charlie Flynn. McChrystal turns sharply in his chair. ‘Hey, Charlie,’ he asks, ‘does this come with the position?’”)
In contrast with all this, we can see that one of the reasons the surge worked was a particular tone established at the top by General Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker, the latter also a much underestimated figure, whose professionalism and competence will increasingly be appreciated, especially in contrast to the current diplomatic team in Afghanistan.
I think conservatives are making a big mistake citing all sorts of legitimate reasons for McChrystal to have expressed frustration. I agree with almost all of them, but they are not the issue, which remains judgment, the chain of command, civilian/military relations, and the very wisdom of palling around Paris with a loose-cannon reporter.
A final note: It is one of ironies of our present warped climate that Petraeus will face far less criticism from the media and politicians than during 2007–8 (there will be no more “General Betray Us” ads or “suspension of disbelief” ridicule), because his success this time will reflect well on Obama rather than George Bush. It is a further irony that Obama is surging with Petraeus despite not long ago declaring that such a strategy and such a commander were failures in Iraq. And it is an even further irony that he is now rightly calling for “common purpose” when — again not long ago, at a critical juncture in Iraq — Obama himself, for partisan purposes on the campaign trail, had no interest in the common purpose of military success in Iraq.
©2010 Victor Davis Hanson