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Praise for the military


The McChrystal controversy has reflected extraordinarily well on the military as an institution. McChrystal's comments themselves amounted to impolitic and unwise gripes about his bosses in front of a reporter. In any other context, it'd be a story, but not all that interesting of one. The outrage, however, was fueled by military rules and traditions that allow very little public criticism of civilian leadership in order to ensure that political and strategic disagreement doesn't curdle into a culture of opposition among the people with all the weapons. McChrystal was clearly lax on policing criticism within his command, but when the system was made aware of that failure, the system worked. You did not see politically disgruntled generals rallying around McChrystal.

Instead, what you saw was David Petraeus taking a command that amounts to a demotion from his current post and could destroy his reputation as a miracle worker. Petraeus's successes in Iraq gave him a tremendous reputation and credibility as a big, strategic thinker. He could rest on that, retire on that, run for office on that. Instead, Petraeus is going to put that reputation back on the line in service of a war effort that may well be doomed. Why? Well, the civilian who leads the military asked him to, and a soldier obeys.

Photo credit: Mark Wilson-Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 24, 2010; 10:18 AM ET
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my main question here is "How in God's name did he elevate himself to this post if this is how he acts?

Posted by: visionbrkr | June 24, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Patraeus is our best bet to apply lessons learned from Iraq.

The first lesson is that the US did not actually win in Iraq.

The Iraqi's themselves are the ones who quelled the violence. They are basically waiting for the Americans to leave so they can get on with their civil war and resolve their power struggles.

What Patraeus should do (if we don't leave altogether) is stop spending $30 billion or more each year in Afghanistan on war and instead start bribing Afghan tribal leaders with that money. Instead of killing Afghans with drones, we should build lots and lots of schools and hospitals and such.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 24, 2010 10:33 AM | Report abuse

OK, so the $700B+/year that we pay for the military is getting us a bunch of generals who (mostly) aren't openly contemptuous of the civilian leadership. That's something, I guess. But it would kinda nice if it also got us some generals who can a) win wars, or
b) advise against getting into dumb wars that can't be won.

Failing that, maybe we could spend $500B or
so of that money on something actually useful, like railways, bridges that don't fall down, schools, a robust electricity grid, etc.

Posted by: richardcownie | June 24, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

The Iraqi's themselves are the ones who quelled the violence. They are basically waiting for the Americans to leave so they can get on with their civil war and resolve their power struggles. "Quelled the violence?" Dude, The Shiites killed most of the Sunnis, expelled all the Christians (700,000) and are just waiting to do the same to the Kurds. The whole thing was a monumental mistake. Yeah, where are the generals who would advise against such things? no where. They like to get their war on.

Posted by: rjewett | June 24, 2010 11:32 AM | Report abuse

David Petraeus is a cagey political beast. He probably has several exit strategies for David Petraeus regardless of the results.

I believe he has political ambitions.

Posted by: BobSanderson | June 24, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

You have a small point, but I think Peter Beinart sees the larger picture:

"That’s the struggle ... between a single-minded general who will stop at nothing to fulfill his mission and a president who believes that even if that mission saves Afghanistan, it could bankrupt the United States. It’s a struggle about whether America is going to adjust to the new limits on its power or pretend that they don’t exist."

Warriors are a permanent constituency for war, and a potential threat to democracy.

Posted by: DaffyDuck2 | June 24, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

If you have to dismiss your commanding general because he is mocking the president and his team, it's over. That's not an isolated incedent. The whole military has probably lost respect for Obama. This thing has gone from a stalemate to a disaster. Get out while the gettings still good. 10 years from now we'll be back, but that's better than this. These jihadist are like roaches. You'll never be rid of them, you just squash em when they come out from hiding.

Posted by: peterg73 | June 24, 2010 12:34 PM | Report abuse

McChrystal voted for Obama. Obviously he and a lot of other generals lost respect for Bush long before now.

Posted by: Lomillialor | June 24, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Petraeus has a strong belief in COIN, but he ought to be smart enough to see that it isn't working in Afghanistan and isn't going to work there for the same reaqsons it didn't work in Algeria or in Vietnam: it costs too much and the support of the people both here and there just isn't there.

Afghanistan isn't Iraq, and the strategy didn't really work in Iraq in any event. If he does go in with eyes wide open, instead of seeing only what he wants to see like McChrystal, he can, in a Nixon-goes-to-China moment, help get us out.

Beinart's piece linked above is good. Obama has to break it to people that we can't win in Afghanistan AND rebuild our economic system and energy policy. And do something about deficit control in the long run (more health care reform).

Of course the cretins in Congr5ess aren't helping matters, but Obama needs to keep making the case for reform as he did in the Oval Office BP speech and the one about McChrystal.

Otherwise we are just well and truly f**ked.

Posted by: Mimikatz | June 24, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this culture is not unique to soldiers. Has anyone asked Robert Gates if he wants to be Defence Secretary? My understanding is that he agreed to the job because the President asked him to, and against his own preferences. I am sure there are other examples, and not just in the Defence Department.

Posted by: adonsig | June 24, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

@adonsig Why yes, people have asked Robert Gates how he likes working for Obama. His answer was telling especially in light of his service under the previous administration.

"He is very analytical," Gates told CNN Chief National Correspondent John King. "He is very deliberate about the way he goes through things. He wants to understand everything. He delves very deeply into these issues." The Pentagon chief was diplomatic when comparing Obama to other former occupants of the Oval Office. "I'm not going to get into comparing the different presidents, Gates said. “I very much enjoy working for this one."

Posted by: MadIrishFrog | June 24, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

"McChrystal voted for Obama. Obviously he and a lot of other generals lost respect for Bush long before now." This is my laugh for the day. You liberals are so filled with hate for Bush that you do not even realize that he was not on the ballot running against Obama. It was John McCain. Ha Ha Ha.

Posted by: cummije5 | June 24, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

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