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The 36 hours that shook Washington

What Obama must take away from the McChrystal debacle...

Written by New York Times | Published: June 28, 2010 4:19:52 am

The moment he pulled the trigger,there was near-universal agreement that President Obama had done the inevitable thing,the right thing and,best of all,the bold thing. But let’s not forget what we saw in the tense 36 hours between when word spread of Rolling Stone’ s blockbuster article and when Obama MacArthured his general.

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.

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 candour. Politico theorised 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 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 who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the “slam-dunk” WMD intelligence in the run-up to Iraq.

The Interior Department follies will end promptly only if Obama has learned the lessons of the attenuated McChrystal debacle. Lesson No 1 should be to revisit some of his initial hiring decisions. The general’s significant role in the Pentagon’s cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death in 2004 should have been disqualifying from the start. Once made the top commander in Afghanistan,the general was kept on long past his expiration date. We now know,thanks to Hastings,that the general was out of control and the White House was naïve. 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.

This fundamental contradiction helps explain some of the war’s failures under McChrystal’s aborted command,including the inability to hold Marja (pop 60,000),which he had vowed to secure in pure counterinsurgency fashion by rolling out a civilian “government in a box” after troops cleared it of the Taliban. Such is the general’s contempt for leadership outside his orbit that it extends even to our allies. The Hastings article opens with McChrystal mocking the French at a time when every ally’s every troop is a precious,dwindling commodity in Afghanistan.

What McChrystal’s supporters most seemed to admire was his uniquely strong relationship with Hamid Karzai,our Afghanistan puppet. As if to prove the point,Karzai was the most visible lobbyist for McChrystal’s survival last week.

The war,supported by a steadily declining minority of Americans,has no chance of regaining public favour 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. 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.”

To appreciate how shielded Americans have been from Afghanistan,revisit Rahm Emanuel’s appearance last Sunday on “This Week” just before the McChrystal firestorm erupted. Trying to put a positive spin on the war,the president’s chief of staff said that the Afghans were at long last meeting their army and police quotas. Technically that’s true; the numbers are up. But in that same day’s Washington Post ,a correspondent in Kandahar reported that the Afghan forces there are poorly equipped,corrupt,directionless and infiltrated by Taliban sympathisers and spies. Kandahar (pop 1 million) is supposed to be the site of the next major American offensive .

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.

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