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October 07, 2009

McChrystal is NOT Shinseki
Posted by Michael Cohen

I have a great deal of respect for Bill Galston, but I'm a bit befuddled by his comments yesterday in the New Republic about General Stanley McChrystal's recent public announcements on Afghanistan policy. Even in the face of public rebukes from National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of Defense Bill Gates, Galston seems to think that progressives are acting hypocritically here:

Jones suggested that military advice should "come up through the chain of command," while Gates chastised that it is "imperative" that military and civilian leaders "provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately." How quickly we forget: That was the rationale used to muzzle General Eric Shinseki during the run up to the Iraq war.

This is just a deeply misleading analogy. Let's review the history for a second. General McChrystal not only had his strategic review leaked to the Washington Post, but he has appeared on 60 Minutes in recent days and even went to London to plead the case for population centric counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. In other words, McChrystal voiced his candid views in public instead of in private up the chain of command. Eric Shinseki did nothing of the sort. In 2003, he was Army Chief of Staff and when he publicly contradicted the Bush Administration's rosy view of the post-war occupation of Iraq he wasn't being interviewed on television - he was testifying under oath to Congress. As Shinseki's spokesperson correctly pointed out at the time, "He was asked a question and he responded with his best military judgment." We should expect nothing less. It's simply incorrect for Galston to say that the arguments being used to hush up General McChrystal today are the same ones that were used to muzzle Shinseki in 2003.

But Galston makes an even more dubious argument:

Wouldn’t we have been better off to have had a no-holds-barred debate involving senior military officials prior to the invasion about the number of troops it would take to stabilize Iraq after the invasion? Wouldn’t we have had the kind of public discussion that the American people deserved but did not get?

No it wouldn't. What would have been better is if the country had that no-holds barred debate in Congress (you know, the branch of government charged in the Constitution with declaring war). Certainly that debate should have been informed by the views not only of the military but also of civilian policy-makers. Clearly that didn't happen in the run-up to the Iraq war. But does Bill Galston really want members of a deeply hierarchical organization like the US military having a no-holds barred public debate on matters of war and peace? This is a recipe for civil-military disaster and I can't believe that Galston doesn't see the downside of such a public usurpation of authority by an institution that is supposed to be subservient to the executive and legislative branches.

Yet Galston doubles down on this argument:

Does McChrystal’s speech put pressure on the president, as some have charged? Sure, and what’s wrong with that? The general is saying that the mission the president articulated back in March after a thorough policy review requires more troops than are now on the ground in Afghanistan. If he’s right about that, the president owes the country one of two things: send the troops or redefine the mission. McChrystal’s intervention makes it more difficult to fudge the decision. In my book, that’s a good thing.

Why can't the general make that case to the President in private - and if Obama decides to redefine the mission or send more troops shouldn't the pressure to explain that decision come not from a general, but from Congress? I'm sort of baffled by this entire argument. Galston wants a public debate about troop levels in Afghanistan. No disagreement there. But the notion that it should be instigated by the military as opposed to elected, accountable officials that serve in a co-equal branch of government just seems bizarre. And frankly I'm less bothered than many on the left about the idea of General McChrystal testifying before Congress. My gut tells me this should wait until after the President has made his strategic assessment, but if Congress wants to hear from the country's military commander in Afghanistan it doesn't strike me as unreasonable.

Finally, Galston's argument seems to ignore the political environment in which decisions about troop levels are being made. Surely Galston is a smart enough observer of American politics to understand that McChrystal's "pressure" does not occur in a political vacuum. Instead it can and will be used by the Republican party to put political pressure on Obama.

Let's look again at the comments last week by Karl Rove, ""Refusing to provide all the troops and strategic support that his commanders are requesting will be to concede defeat."  This is precisely the problem with having generals express their views in the midst of a strategic review by the White House - particularly when you have an opposition party in which people like Karl Rove are held in high esteem. It unnecessarily politicizes the debate. Now General McChrystal may not be overly concerned about the impact of his words on the country's political discussions, but the rest of us should be - and it's a good reason why Bill Galston is just plain wrong on this one.


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Plus, look Shinseki was talking about resourcing, not strategy. He didn't say invading Iraq was a bad idea. He didn't claim we could live with a contained Saddam. He merely answered a question about how to resource the strategy.

It is just apples and oranges to compare the two.

Fact is, most of McChrystal's defenders are demonstrating an embarrassing lack of knowledge of facts and norms of civil-military relations.

Damn, at least he is not adding troops

most of McChrystal's defenders are demonstrating an embarrassing lack of knowledge of facts and norms of civil-military relations.

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Moreover, Fox News personalities repeatedly criticized President Obama for having not yet acted on McChrystal's advice but almost entirely avoided criticizing the Bush administration for not heeding Shinseki's 2003 recommendation.

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