What we saw was this: 1) Much of the Beltway establishment was blindsided by Michael Hastings’s scoop, an impressive feat of journalism by a Washington outsider who seemed to know more about what was going on in Washington than most insiders did; 2) Obama’s failure to fire McChrystal months ago for both his arrogance and incompetence was a grievous mistake that illuminates a wider management shortfall at the White House; 3) The present strategy has produced no progress in this nearly nine-year-old war, even as the monthly coalition body count has just reached a new high.
There were few laughs in the 36 hours of tumult, but Jon Stewart captured them with a montage of cable-news talking heads expressing repeated shock that an interloper from a rock ’n’ roll magazine could gain access to the war command and induce it to speak with self-immolating candor. Politico theorized that Hastings had pulled off his impertinent coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk “burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.”
That sentence was edited out of the article — in a routine updating, said Politico — after the blogger Andrew Sullivan highlighted it as a devastating indictment of a Washington media elite too cozy with and protective of its sources to report the unvarnished news. In any event, Politico had the big picture right. It’s the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access. Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate. Seymour Hersh was a freelancer when he broke My Lai. It was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the “slam-dunk” W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq.
We now know, thanks to Hastings, that the general was out of control and the White House was naïve. The price has been huge. The McChrystal cadre’s utter distaste for its civilian colleagues on the war team was an ipso facto death sentence for the general’s signature counterinsurgency strategy. You can’t engage in nation building without civilian partnership. As Rachel Maddow said last week of McChrystal, “the guy who was promoting and leading the counterinsurgency strategy has shown by his actions that even he doesn’t believe in it.”
You have to wonder whether McChrystal’s defenders in Washington even read Hastings’s article past its inflammatory opening anecdotes. If so, they would have discovered that the day before the Marja offensive, the general’s good pal Hamid Karzai kept him waiting for hours so he could finish a nap before signing off on the biggest military operation of the year. Poor McChrystal was reduced to begging another official to wake the sleeping president so he could get on with the show.
The war, supported by a steadily declining minority of Americans, has no chance of regaining public favor unless President Obama can explain why American blood and treasure should be at the mercy of this napping Afghan president. Karzai stole an election, can’t provide a government in or out of a box, and has in recent months threatened to defect to the Taliban and accused American forces of staging rocket attacks on his national peace conference. Until last week, Obama’s only real ally in making his case was public apathy. Next to unemployment and the oil spill, Karzai and Afghanistan were but ticks on our body politic, even as the casualty toll passed 1,000. As a senior McChrystal adviser presciently told Hastings, “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular.”
The gaping discrepancy between Emanuel’s upbeat assessment and the reality on the ground went unremarked because absolutely no one was paying attention. Everyone is now. That, at least, gives us reason to hope that the president’s first bold move to extricate America from the graveyard of empires won’t be his last.
We don't need to be an empire but we don't need to be in the graveyard either. I supported the Afghan war longer than most, but it's going nowhere. I don't want the Taliban running that country, but nobody else seems to want to run it besides thieves and dopers out for themselves. If (not 'when', though we surely will someday. Maybe...) we leave, the Taliban will surely take over. Does al Qaeda come back? Do we get attacked again? Can we just nuke 'em when that happens? How much is this all worth?
Certainly more questions than answers. I still think we could have done some some good there if not for the needless criminal war of aggression and distraction in Iraq.
Thanks again, Georgie. Yes, I will continue to blame that little weakling until all this is no longer his fault.