Unless you were hiding under a rock for the past 36 hours, you are probably aware that General Stanley McChrystal, who was yesterday the supreme commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, was portrayed in a Rolling Stone magazine article as insubordinate, immature and borderline incompetent. What was so damaging about the article were not specific things that McChrystal said — which were not really so bad — but its unsparing and rather merciless depiction of the atmosphere which McChrystal had created around himself. It was an atmosphere of insubordination. Conservatives may be inclined to blame Obama for the evident rift between the White House political team and the military brass around McChrystal, and to some extent they may be right; but thus far I am seeing most conservatives also recognize that the atmosphere of disdain and dismissiveness that McChrystal had fostered was a cancerous ulcer that had to be removed. When you are asking thousands of young men and women to put their lives on the line for a mission to which the President has committed himself, then you cannot scorn and undermine the President without deteriorating the authority structure and the morale structure upon which the military is built.
What struck me before the events of today was that none of the central players in the drama came out of the sordid affair with an unsoiled reputation. McChrystal was made to look the part of a fool, crass and crude, who was cultishly devoted to a fatally flawed military strategy. It was revealed that top military considered Vice President Biden something of a clown, and Obama appeared distant, uninformed and unengaged on one of the most important matters of his Presidency. The diplomatic corps in Afghanistan fared the worst, except perhaps for Michael Hastings, the author of the piece, who treats his own opinion as gospel throughout the article, consistently misrepresents the military and its mission, and clearly shared more than he was intended to share. Does it get any lower than describing, at great length and apropos of nothing, how the general and his circle behave while drunk? Even General Petraeus could not emerge unscathed, since he hand-picked McChrystal for the job.
The only person who comes out of this oily mess smelling like roses is famed war photojournalist Michael Yon. Yon took an extraordinary amount of flack when he sounded the alarm on Generals Menard and McChrystal, as the collective wrath of the milblogging community fell upon his head. Menard was revealed to be incompetent and a serial womanizer, as Yon had suggested. And now Yon stands vindicated yet again. The milbloggers spoke of McChrystal in reverent tones, and his devotion to his men, his effective former leadership of the special forces, and his courage to appear alongside his men on any battlefield are absolutely deserving of respect. Yet the recklessness of McChrystal’s personal behavior, his insidious disrespect for civilian authority, and his singular inability to behave tactfully in relation to politicians and diplomats, are significant character flaws.
Presumably the milbloggers who roasted Yon for his criticisms of McChrystal will argue that Yon’s specific criticisms were not borne out by the article. It is hard to see how this is the case. Yon argued that McChrystal was no longer trustworthy, that he was not the right man for the job, and that he “needed to be watched.” Now President Obama must wish that he had listened to Yon and started watching McChrystal a little sooner. (I recently interviewed Michael Yon on the faith lives of our soldiers, and I described my response to the criticism of Yon here.)
Under the circumstances, the only winning play that was available to Obama was to assign General Petraeus to the Afghanistan job. There are many reasons why I like this decision. (And my thanks to Michael Gerson for discussing this tonight.) There was no other person who could have stepped in immediately and continued the same war strategy. There is no one more respected by the military, by Congress, and by our allies in Afghanistan. And this is a decisive moment in the war to win Afghanistan; it is the time to send our very best hitter to the plate. Petraeus is that man. So, while the right decision seemed rather obvious in this case, nonetheless I applaud President Obama for making it.
It also expresses extraordinary courage on the part of Petraeus. Petraeus runs the risk of tarnishing his legacy. If he fails to secure Afghanistan, then his detractors will say that the Iraq success was due to accidents of history, such as the Anbar Awakening. Petraeus’ legend will diminish. Yet if he is able to secure Afghanistan, then he will go down as one of America’s greatest generals of all time. He will become an immortal. He will also become, if he wishes to be one, a most formidable potential Presidential nominee. (One wonders if Obama explored the possibility of a Presidential run, and determined to his satisfaction that Petraeus would make no such move, before giving him the job.
The final and most important question is whether this benefits the troops. I am willing to forgive a whole raft of character flaws in a general if he is the best person to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform. And I am willing to ignore the opportunism of the article writer if his article actually serves to put a more responsible leader in place. If McChrystal and his circle are as immature and overmatched as they are made out to be, then it is a great service to replace him with someone more disciplined and effective.
Well done, then, to the Obama team on making this swift transition to Petraeus, and especially well done by Petraeus in accepting what has got to be about the least appealing job in the world. Let us hope that these changes are for the better, and serve to turn the tide of battle in Afghanistan. Petraeus is our miracle man, and God knows we could use a miracle right now.