McChrystal’s Challenge

A prank – or a provocation?

by , June 23, 2010

All Washington is atwitter over a Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in which the thuggish commander of US forces in Afghanistan and his snarky juvenile-sounding aides (who call themselves “Team America”) deride Vice President Joe Biden – “Joe Bite Me” – special envoy Richard Holbrooke (“‘Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.'”), White House national security adviser Jim Jones, and ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry (a “clown”). Not even the president is spared: McChrystal’s team claims Obama was “intimidated” by the General, a charge that reinforces the neocon meme about the administration’s supposedly anti-military pseudo-pacifistic foreign policy.

The narrative spun by author Michael Hastings is redolent of a movie scenario, definitely of the grade-B variety: the main character, the General, is a thuggish caricature – Hastings describes him as someone “who was always open to new ways of killing” – who is nonetheless glamorized as a lean, mean fighting machine who eats one meal a day, runs seven miles every morning, and is in every other respect an archetypal Attila right out of Central Casting. His “team,” too, is romanticized in a way that might appeal to the imagination of a grade-B screenwriter:

“The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts.”

Those crazy, kooky, lovable imperialists: what a bunch of characters! Geniuses! Patriots! Maniacs! Ya gotta love ‘em.

The spotlight, however, is on “the Boss,” with his subordinates singing the chorus. Here is a man who, on a visit to Paris, sneers at the prospect of going to dinner with a French official: we are told he hates any restaurant that has sissy stuff like candles on the tables. “Too Gucci,” he grunts. “I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” he says:

“He pauses a beat.

“‘Unfortunately,’ he adds, ‘no one in this room could do it.’”

“With that, he’s out the door.

“’Who’s he going to dinner with?’ I ask one of his aides.

“’Some French minister,’ the aide tells me. ‘It’s fucking gay.’”

Naturally, the PC thought police are in an uproar about the “gay” thing, not realizing the aide didn’t mean gay gay, but, in current juvenile parlance, flamboyantly ridiculous – which surely describes the antics of “Team America” and their Fearless Leader in the company of a reporter taking notes.

Yet there’s a distinctly sinister air to these boyish shenanigans, like the low growling of a pit bull about to yank its chain out of the wall. What were these guys thinking? What was McChrystal thinking? The farther one gets in a very long article, the less prankish it seems. In the end, it all comes off as a performance, and a good one at that.

There are two ways to read the Hastings piece: 1) A lot of very bad boys were caught smoking in the lavatory, and they’re going to spend the next couple of weeks in detention, or 2) McChrystal and his team wanted to get “caught” – this is the first shot across the bow by a faction of the military out to spike the promised “drawdown” that’s supposed to start happening in 2011 and which is already being “downplayed.” McChrystal’s verbal hand grenades are aimed at exploding the already vanishing possibility that this will actually occur.

Hastings explicitly frames his piece in the context of a power struggle between the Obama White House and “Team America” over the course of the Afghan war, referring to last year’s battle over McChrystal’s request for 45,000 more troops, and correctly noting that the General won that round.

The prankish aspect of this story has the media’s attention, but interspersed amidst the insults and the outrageous behavior are the bullet points of a coherent if horrendous political critique. This little aside from the “team” is nothing if not overt: “Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal’s inner circle,” avers Hastings:

“‘Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,’ says an adviser. ‘She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.’”

Another clue to the intensely political context is McChrystal’s strenuous backing of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whose corruption is such that not even the Chicago pols around the President can stomach it. McChrystal has no such compunctions. If Obama is the “liberal” face of US imperialism, the General represents imperialism without “Gucci” pretensions.

This divide comes out rather sharply in the discussion of McChrystal’s rivalry – feud, is more like it – with Eikenberry. Hastings retails Team America’s derisive characterization of the US ambassador, a retired three-star general, as motivated by jealousy – he “can’t stand that his former subordinate is now calling the shots,” snarks Hastings – and rage at not receiving the post of Afghan “viceroy” due to the General’s opposition. The real meat of the matter, however, is Eikenberry’s skeptical view of the war, as expressed in a memoleaked” to the New York Times which presciently saw Afghanistan as an unlikely prospect for US colonization and worried “We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves, short of allowing the country to descend again into lawlessness and chaos.”

The General complains Eikenberry “blindsided” him, and, by extension, the troops in the field. Oddly, Hastings reports McChrystal “felt ‘betrayed’ by the leak.” Since Team America are the likely culprits behind the leak, rather than Eikenberry and those in the administration who agree with him, the General’s complaint rings with something less than sincerity. “I like Karl,” he says, but we never get to hear exactly what he likes about him. Instead, there’s this:

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.'”

This aspiring Caesar is already worried about the history books. Perhaps he’ll write his own version of the history of the Afghan war, a kind of Caesar’s Commentaries brought up to date. This whole affair screams “Book deal!”

It also screams political provocation, and the administration is treading very gingerly over the question of what the Commander in chief is going to do about it. McChrystal is calling him out. How Obama responds is crucial to the health and future of what is left of our old republic.

It won’t be the first time a military commander took on the White House: we all remember what happened to Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea (less well-known is that MacArthur later became a leading critic of interventionism, and a hero to the fast-fading “isolationist”, i.e. pro-peace wing of the GOP.) Up until this point, Presidents have generally made short shrift of insubordinate commanders, and the Seven Days in May scenario was never a real possibility in America … until now.

I often use the term “War Party” as a kind of political shorthand, a phrase that has lacked many specifics, except to signify anyone and everyone who supports the interventionist agenda. Yet, as we slip into the first phases of imperial decline, such a party, with an explicit agenda of expansionism at any price, was bound to emerge. Our empire of bases and global military presence has engendered a whole new subspecies of American, a class or caste that derives its income, its tradition, and in many cases its family history from the long record of US military intervention overseas. They are the knights of the American imperium, not only military but also civilians whose social, economic, and political interests are inextricably tied to the growth of the empire. This includes but is not limited to the military contractors, the administrators, the Washington policy wonks who come up with endless rationales for war – and, really, the entire political class in Washington, and their vassals among the coastal elites.

For all his roughness, make no mistake: McChrystal is a fairly sophisticated and politically savvy member of this clan. It’s true he’s a hard case, and never more so than during the 1970s at West Point, where he was always in trouble for drinking and other shenanigans. However, he also had a literary side: as an editor of the West Point literary magazine, the Pointer, he turned out a series of short stories, including an eerie, somewhat overstated premonition of the current Obama-McChrystal showdown, entitled “Brinkman’s Note.” Hastings describes it as “a piece of suspense fiction,” in which

“The unnamed narrator appears to be trying to stop a plot to assassinate the president. It turns out, however, that the narrator himself is the assassin, and he’s able to infiltrate the White House: ‘The President strode in smiling. From the right coat pocket of the raincoat I carried, I slowly drew forth my 32-caliber pistol. In Brinkman’s failure, I had succeeded.’”

If I were in the Obama administration – an unlikely scenario, but still – I’d take the McChrystal challenge seriously.

As the nation teeters on the brink of economic disaster at home, as well as military disaster on the Afghan front, there are voices calling for a Leader – capitalize that, please. The military virtues are a shelter in a socio-economic storm, the causes of which are incomprehensible to the average American. The people are yearning for someone to tell them what to do, and when to do it, and what better leader-figure amid all this turmoil than a tough-talking no-nonsense roughneck, a brute for brutish times. Whether that figure is McChrystal, or someone else, isn’t really the point. What’s important is that his actions – and the President’s response – will set an important precedent.

In the age of empire, American military leaders – even the insubordinate kind – are inevitably becoming political figures. To anyone who understands the original intent of the Founders, and their mortal fear of a permanent military caste, this is a frightening development: indeed, it is a turning point, one that the history books of McChrystal’s imagination will note as the moment an American Caesar crossed the Rubicon – or not.

Read more by Justin Raimondo