McChrystal could no longer do the job

June 24, 2010


— In 1932, during a lunch in Albany with Rexford Tugwell, an adviser, Gov. Franklin Roosevelt paused to take a telephone call from Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. When the call ended, FDR referred to Long as the second-most dangerous man in America. Who, Tugwell asked, is the most dangerous? FDR answered: Douglas MacArthur.

As Army chief of staff, MacArthur had just flamboyantly conducted the violent dispersal of the bedraggled “bonus army” in Washington. Nearly 19 years later, he was to become most dangerous to himself, as another commanding general has now done. But Stanley McChrystal is no MacArthur.

MacArthur had some of the genius and much of the egomania of a former artillery captain, Napoleon. This made MacArthur insubordinate and got him cashiered by a former artillery captain, Harry Truman. Although McChrystal is a fine soldier who rendered especially distinguished service in Iraq, there is no reason to ascribe to him either egomania or insubordination. He did, however, emphatically disqualify himself from further military service, and particularly from service in Afghanistan. There the military’s purely military tasks are secondary to the political and social tasks for which the military is ill-suited, and for which McChrystal is garishly so.

The American undertaking in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand and McChrystal is breathtakingly foolish. Even so, he and it were badly matched. This, even though the errand is of the president’s careful devising and McChrystal was the president’s choice to replace the four-star general who had been commanding there.

It may be said that McChrystal’s defect is only a deficit of political acumen. Only? Again, the mission in Afghanistan is much more political than military. Counterinsurgency, as defined by McChrystal’s successor, Gen. David Petraeus, and tepidly embraced by Barack Obama for a year or so, does not just involve nation-building, it is nation-building.

This does not just require political acumen, it requires the wisdom of Aristotle, the leadership skills of George Washington and the analytic sophistication of Tocqueville. But, then, the grinding paradox of nation-building is this: No one with the aptitudes necessary for it would be rash or delusional enough to try it.

The McChrystal debacle comes as America’s longest war is entering a surreal stage: The military is charged with a staggeringly complex task, the completion of which — if completion can even be envisioned — must involve many years. But when given the task, the military was told to begin bringing it to a close in a matter of 18 months.

The not quite seven months that have passed since the president announced his policy have seen sobering military disappointments and daunting evidence of how intractable is the incompetence and how manifold is the corruption of the Kabul government. For as long as we persist in this Sisyphean agony, the president will depend on forthrightness from a military commander whose judgment he trusts.

That could not be McChrystal. If he had been retained, he would have henceforth been chastened, abject, wary and reticent. It is unthinkable that he could still have been a valuable participant in future deliberations with the president and his principal national security advisers. The president demanded, and the Americans in harm’s way in Afghanistan deserve, better.

It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to suppress this thought: McChrystal’s disrespectful flippancies, and the chorus of equally disdainful comments from the unpleasant subordinates he has chosen to have around him, emanate from the toxic conditions that result when the military’s can-do culture collides with a cannot-be-done assignment. In this toxicity, Afghanistan is Vietnam redux.

In July 1945, with the war in the Pacific still to be won and Winston Churchill engaged in the Potsdam conference, the British electorate turned him out of office. When his wife Clementine suggested that this might be a blessing in disguise, he replied: If so, it is very well disguised indeed.

The shattering of McChrystal is a messy blessing if the president seizes upon it as a reason for revisiting basic questions about whether Afghanistan matters so much and what is possible there and at what cost. It may be said that with the Afghan mission entering — or soon to enter; it is late and now may become more so — a crucial military phase in Kandahar, the cradle of the Taliban, McChrystal is indispensible. Any who may say that should heed the words of another general, one of the 20th century’s greatest leaders and realists. Charles de Gaulle said: The graveyards are full of indispensable men.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. georgewill@washpost.com


cato_the_elder 6 years ago

For two years leading up to the 2008 election, the Democrats, and Obama in particular, chanted the mantra over and over again that Afghanistan, rather than Iraq, was the "right" war to fight. They did it purely for political gain (as many Democrats had done earlier when they first supported the Iraq War and then opposed it after it had turned negative, solely for political gain), and now they're in it up to their ears. Bam is going to be saddled with this throughout the remainder of his one term in office, facing bitter criticism from his far-left base while at the same time having to attempt to square his actions with his many previous statements on the record that Afghanistan was the critical place to be. He and many members of his party will deserve every bit of discomfort this will bring as the result of their hypocrisy.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

All of these wars were started for political purposes (although there were other reasons, as well-- oil, miltary contracts, etc.) It was a central part of the Neocon political strategy that Bush be a "war president." But neocolonial/militaristic thinking has infected both political parties over many decades, and Obama has certainly not been immune to it.

Cait McKnelly 6 years ago

Just out of curiosity, where do you think we need to be, why, for how long and what's your exit strategy?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

I think the Defense Dept should live up to its name. Close all overseas bases, and bring everyone home. Pretty simple, really.

The money saved could be used to fix our badly deteriorated infrastructure, and pay off the national debt.

Blessed4x 6 years ago

Wow. I can buy this for European bases but are you really advocating removal of all security forces from places like Korea? Do you know how long it would Kim to cross the border with armor and soldiers? Would you feel any remorse?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

You have absolutely no idea what would happen if US personnel were withdrawn from Korea. And you're article of faith that N. Korea would invade doesn't take into account that the Chinese would almost certainly be against any moves that would start up any shooting war-- it wouldn't be good for business.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Perhaps nobody does have such crystal ball powers, bozo, but given history and the N. Korean leadership it is reasonable to conclude it wouldn't be a wise gamble to risk S. Korea's freedom and population in a game of chicken. And considering the S. Korean government still believes its prudent that we help watch over a demilitarized zone that's been in place for nearly 60 years, I'm guesssin' they don't feel so safe without our presence.

gogoplata 6 years ago

That is not our problem. Our founding fathers warned us about getting into entangling alliances. We should have listened.

We can never hope to remain free while trying to be the worlds policeman. I value the freedom of US citizens over that of South Koreans.

jaywalker 6 years ago

How 'bout their lives, gogo? And sorry, but it is our problem. They're our friends, they're our allies.

gogoplata 6 years ago

Sure its our problem now. We have a base for our empire over there. Our governments job is to provide for the defense of this nation not 130 other nations in this world. We can continue to make it our problem and our nation will fall. It will come crashing down unable to support its own weight. Or we can follow the advise of the founders and mind our own business and prosper. I'd rather be free and prosper.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Well, the world's a tad different from our founder's days, and we helped bring it to where it is. To abandon those countries and friends now would be criminal. And part of our "prospering" depends on free trade and free trade routes. We become Switzerland and alot of that goes away.

gogoplata 6 years ago

Sure it is a tad different. But it isn't that different. People have not changed. Freedom still works better than tyranny. What is criminal is not abandoning those countries it is continuing to make the US taxpayer pay for an empire. Our empire will end. How it ends is up to us. We can scale the empire back and go back to a constitutional foreign policy or we can go the way that all empires go.

JustNoticed 6 years ago

"Bam"?? So arrogant, so smug - truly repulsive.

Peter Macfarlane 6 years ago

And you think that a politician in the current cast of characters with an R after his/her name could do better? Get real! Judging by the previous president's actions, it could only get worse. He had an R after his name and was supposed to be a passionate conservative. Can you spell the word "denial?"

As long as the root cause of our adventures in third world countries revolve around oil and drugs, we will not be successful since we are the largest consumers of both. It's like fighting a war against ourselves.

Ralph Reed 6 years ago

Quit trying to hijack the thread Tom. It's not about whether you like Pres Obama or not, we all know you don't. In fact I don't think you like anything to the left of 1 sd towards the Rep side of the mean.

The basic question was whether or not Gen McChrystal was wrong in his behavior. The answer is yes.

Did Pres Obama do the right thing? Again, the answer is yes. In fact, I expect Gen McChrystal to retire here shortly.

Is Gen Petraeus the correct choice to take his place? Again, the answer is yes. He knows the area, the people in the region know him and he literally wrote the book on Counter Insurgency Operations. Who would be a better choice, and why?

BTW, welcome back.

puddleglum 6 years ago

A thinking man changes his mind- a FOOL never does.

verity 6 years ago

That begs the question of whether a pretty person ever changes their mind.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

"Obi One Chooses Gen Petraeus To Replace Gen McCyrstal And MoveOn. Org Scrubbs Website Of General "Betray Us""


Maddy Griffin 6 years ago

I wasn't a big fan of Petraeus back when he asked for the surge either. Seems to me that too many have made the ultimate sacrifice over there.But he obviously knew what he was doing and we are exiting that country slowly but surely. Let's hope he can work his "magic" again. People should be able to change their minds on issues dependng on the information at hand.New info= new opinion. Unfortunately Nancy=Tom can't because there is only one thought on his mind;"Obama is bad". Nobody should be that set in their ways.

Ralph Reed 6 years ago



So you agree with the following. If not, why not?

The basic question was whether or not Gen McChrystal was wrong in his behavior. The answer is yes.

Did Pres Obama do the right thing? Again, the answer is yes.

Is Gen Petraeus the correct choice to take his place? Again, the answer is yes. He knows the area, the people in the region know him and he literally wrote the book on Counter Insurgency Operations.

jonas_opines 6 years ago

Well, his presidential hero never really did that, so at least we have consistency.

jaywalker 6 years ago

That's a complete load. The "American Public" doesn't run military affairs, nor do they dictate the Rules of Engagement which have been severely restricted by bureaucrats who don't know the first thing about combat.

jaywalker 6 years ago

That's ludicrous. The American public dictate how the government runs?! What colors' the sky in your world? And there have been countless "spirited engagements" in Afghanistan countless times with NO "progress" of any kind; just ask the Soviet Union. And we are seeing a "pull-out", set by this administration to be finished next year.
And if the new ROE's were set by McChrystal, it was at the order of bureaucrats. No general is going to hamstring his own men and watch them die due to a sense of politicality and media scrutiny; did you even read this column in relation to McChrystal's non-political sensibilities?

It must be incredibly difficult for you, vertigo, to always have to be talking through your pants, if you know what I mean.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Nice try, vertigo, but stop before you out yourself completely. I'm well-versed in military matters, pal, I was raised in the military and I've served my country. And the more you attempt to position yourself as some important particpant in such affairs, the more you sound like you're full of it. If you were ANY kind of insider, or were even anything more than a Guardsman - that's what I'm guessing, at this point - you certainly wouldn't be propping up the "American public" as the arbiters of military protocol and strategy, nor would you be so cowardly in disrepecting a military giant like General McChrystal on a comments board like this. If you've actually served - something I once took at face value by your contentions but is now smelling more and more suspect - God bless you and keep you from harm, and thank you for your service. Just quit putting this kind of tripe out there. There are too many of us around who know the bs when we see it.

jaywalker 6 years ago

No, you don't. If you've served then I'm proud to call you my brother. Fact remains, just because you're active doesn't make the spittle you've been serving up factual. Too bad this has devolved, but the American public doesn't dictate military strategy, and McChrystal ain't responsible for the bs ROE's in Afghanistan. Period. That is/was the topic. And anyone that knows anything about the military knows that.

Ralph Reed 6 years ago

And this is relevant to the article because ...?

jonas_opines 6 years ago

And that is relevant how?

It seems that if you justify acts by stating there was an equivalent act in the past from political opponents, then you are simply stating that you are no better than your political opponents. If so, then I agree.

If that's all that it takes to satisfy you, I suppose, then carry on.

puddleglum 6 years ago

horrible article.... it never says exactly what mcchrystal was guilty of. in fact, I haven't heard any exact words, has anybody?

Ralph Reed 6 years ago

Fox News: " 'The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan,' Obama said."

MSNBC: Similar quotations.

Yahoo news. Similar.

All of these add up to at least, conduct unbecoming and Insubordination

Maddy Griffin 6 years ago

Take your pretty self to the newsstand and buy a copy of Rolling Stone. The interview in question is in it.

verity 6 years ago

I actually agree (I think) with Will on this one. He uses big words and sometime I don't really know what he's saying.

Kontum1972 6 years ago

u arm-chair warriors crack me up....

lounger 6 years ago

Oh puleese enlighten us with your expert opinion Tom. If you offer anything worth a spit then we could use you in the war room, until then keep you comments to yourself if you are going to be so broad with your lame judgements.

jayhawklawrence 6 years ago

In case anybody still misses George W. Bush, other than late night talk show hosts in their monologues, here is a link to some Bushisms that we all love.


jayhawklawrence 6 years ago

And here is a link about the guy that probably did more than anyone else to get us mired down in (2) wars. Dick Cheney.


He is now on the lecture circuit promoting the torture of POWs.

jonas_opines 6 years ago

Haha. So says the crown prince of "But Bush." The only one who brings up the previous administration more than you is Merrill. Only difference is that he does it the way Groenhagen did with Clinton, in order to allocate blame, and you fixate on the behavior of the far left's BDS to justify your own equally vitriolic and vapid ODS.

Ralph Reed 6 years ago

TOM ... TOM, You There?

I just heard President Obama caused the oil spill. You might want to add this to your kit bag and capitalize on it.


It's hot Tom. Please, pass it on.

jayhawklawrence 6 years ago

It took Obama 30 minutes to fire the General. I think that was impressive.

I am hoping I was wrong about George Will. He wrote an honest column that wasn't about baseball.

Perhaps I will start to pay attention to him again.

cato_the_elder 6 years ago

JustNoticed, I actually prefer to call the COIC "Bam Bam," which I will both arrogantly and smugly do right now, both for your reading pleasure and my enjoyment at the thought of you reading it.

camper 6 years ago

"The Surge is Working". That is what the experts are saying. It is the same old story we have been hearing for almost 10 years now. As long as we are in these conflicts, I will not believe this. It is time we:

1) Advise the UN we are pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan now, and gather support from UN members to prevent a further invasion from a rouge nation after US withdrawl. 2) Bring our troops home as soon as #1 is accomplished. 3) After #2 is accomplished, do not support any regime within these two countries, militarily. 4) View conflicts within these two countries as regional conflicts, and stay out.

Harsh as it seems, life will go on in these two countries with the US out. There will be violence, but it will be impossible to determine if it will be more or less in the long run if we pull out.

Liberty275 6 years ago

When will we be seeing Antiwar demonstrations in Lawrence again? Shouldn't you guys be out protesting the new appointment of "General Betray Us" over allied forces in Afghanistan? OK, I realize it's summer and it's really too hot for something as silly as war protests, but maybe you could take out a full page ad in the Journal World accusing "Betray Us" of cooking the books in Afghanistan because he actually thinks we have a chance of winning the war and not being scared home like a dog with its tail between its legs.

Also, you really need to mobilize on the continuing confinement of innocent little boys at Gitmo, the extension of The Patriot Act, more and more extraordinary rendition and of course, the targeting of US citizens abroad for assassination without even the mockery of a trial. You guys used to be right on top of these subjects, but it seems like something has happened which rendered you complicit, er, complacent. I wonder what that something was?

KRJungel 6 years ago

“There the military’s purely military tasks are secondary to the political and social tasks for which the military is ill-suited, and for which McChrystal is garishly so.”

Politics should move over once the command has been given to go to war – and win it.

“The McChrystal debacle comes as America’s longest war is entering a surreal stage: The military is charged with a staggeringly complex task, the completion of which — if completion can even be envisioned — must involve many years. But when given the task, the military was told to begin bringing it to a close in a matter of 18 months.”

Obama, move over. You are not a commander in chief – you are a wanna-be actor whose star is about to fall. And it will probably happen by your very own party.

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