Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 12:22 am

Eye on the ball

Filed under: Journalism — Lex @ 12:22 am
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The stink over Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s disparaging remarks about his commander-in-chief remind me of something: that I’m old enough to remember when David Stockman got his education.

I don’t mean his college degree, which he got in 1964 or thereabouts. I mean his experience as Ronald Reagan’s first White House budget director — and with the national media and his fellow Republicans — after he talked to William Greider of The Atlantic, perhaps too candidly, about his work.

What Stockman actually said was almost forgotten immediately. What the press insisted on talking about, to the exclusion of almost everything else, was: What would happen to David Stockman? In particular — and, God, how tired I grew of hearing this phrase — would he be taken to the woodshed? In other words, the most important story in U.S. government for — well, I don’t remember how long, now, because it was almost 30 years ago, and it was probably only days, but it seemed at the time like months — was, “Will some bureaucrat keep his job?”

Not “Is the government doing what it is supposed to?” or “Is the government doing what it’s doing cost-effectively?” or even “Do the people who are running the government know what they are doing?”

No, it was all about David Stockman’s Job.

(And people think TODAY’s news media suck.)

See if you can guess what it was that Stockman said that actually got people all het up in the first place. Go on. If you weren’t there at the time, you’ll never figure it out.

Well, it was this.

The main idea on which Ronald Reagan had campaigned in 1980 — cutting top marginal income tax rates would stimulate business and industry enough to generate a net increase in revenues — was bogus. During the campaign, Stockman said, he’d never believed all that strongly in the idea in the first place, and once he got into the actual business of crafting a budget, he knew it was crap.

Now, a news media that had the first idea of what it was doing might be expected to pounce upon, pursue, expand upon and analyze the idea that the signal piece of ideology behind a president’s historic, overwhelming electoral victory was fraudulent. That, however, was not the news media we had.

Had we had that media, we might have learned much sooner (perhaps even before the 1980 election) what Stockman finally told us in 1986, long after he had left government: The President of the United States didn’t have the first damn idea what he was doing with the budget.

Michael Kinsley summarizes in his New York Times review of the book:

There are repeated scenes of the President sitting in amiable silence through policy discussions until some word or phrase -”Medicare,” perhaps, or ”oil depletion allowance” -sets him off on an anecdote, usually revealing that he has totally misunderstood the preceding conversation. A reference to the Cabinet’s failure to cut personnel costs leads to a long and familiar anecdote about filing cabinets. Senator Bob Dole comes by to plead for cuts in programs other than welfare. Mr. Dole utters the word, ”welfare.” Mr. Stockman thinks, ”I wish he hadn’t said that.” And sure enough, ” ‘Bob’s getting at the same thing we found in California,’ the President observed right on cue. He went on to make a point precisely the opposite of Dole’s.”

Cabinet members take skillful advantage of the Commander in Chief’s capacity for befuddlement. Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis convinces him that quotas on Japanese cars are not a violation of free trade because Government regulations have hampered American producers. (Japanese cars must meet the same regulations, of course.) Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger shows up for a meeting intended to settle whether the defense buildup should be $1.46 trillion over five years or only $1.33 trillion. His chief prop is a cartoon of three soldiers – one, a pygmy without a rifle, representing the Carter budget; one, ”a four-eyed wimp . . . carrying a tiny rifle,” representing $1.33 trillion, Mr. Stockman’s defense budget; and one, ”G.I. Joe himself . . . all decked out in helmet and flak jacket and pointing an M-60 machine gun,” representing $1.46 trillion. This is how Presidential decisions are made.

This information would have been helpful to know in real time. It certainly would have been helpful to know before the 1984 election, although I doubt it would have made any difference.

I tell this story because we’re in a similar situation with McChrystal and his disrespectful staff: we’re focusing on whether one guy will keep his job.

In fact, he probably should have lost it long ago:

After Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former-NFL-star-turned-Ranger, was accidentally killed by his own troops in Afghanistan in April 2004, McChrystal took an active role in creating the impression that Tillman had died at the hands of Taliban fighters. He signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn’t read the recommendation closely enough – a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.) A week later, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command, specifically warning that President Bush should avoid mentioning the cause of Tillman’s death. “If the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public,” he wrote, it could cause “public embarrassment” for the president.

“The false narrative, which McChrystal clearly helped construct, diminished Pat’s true actions,” wrote Tillman’s mother, Mary, in her book Boots on the Ground by Dusk. McChrystal got away with it, she added, because he was the “golden boy” of Rumsfeld and Bush, who loved his willingness to get things done, even if it included bending the rules or skipping the chain of command. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to major general.

Two years later, in 2006, McChrystal was tainted by a scandal involving detainee abuse and torture at Camp Nama in Iraq. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, prisoners at the camp were subjected to a now-familiar litany of abuse: stress positions, being dragged naked through the mud. McChrystal was not disciplined in the scandal, even though an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times.

As the article points out — and unwittingly illustrates — McChrystal has been a media favorite, for reasons probably only a forensic psychiatrist could explain: Even while writing an article that exposes McChrystal, Michael Hastings says the Tillman scandal “would have destroyed the career of a lesser man” (emphasis added).

Well, should McChrystal lose his job? Probably, for two reasons: 1) Active-duty service members, who matter who they are, are forbidden from publicly criticizing the commander-in-chief, no matter who he/she is. 2) This isn’t McChrystal’s first such mistake. He publicly criticized the counterinsurgency plan for Afghanistan developed by Vice President Joe Biden — who, like him or not (and I think he’s kind of an ass), has a lot more foreign-policy experience than McChrystal does. Not to say that McChrystal is bad at what he does. Quite the opposite. But what he does, or has done, mainly, is black ops, which is, at best, one tool among many in a comprehensive counterinsurgency program and at worst just flat illegal.

But to focus only on McChrystal’s insubordination is to miss a much bigger picture: McChrystal’s — this country’s — counterinsurgency strategy is failing in Afghanistan. In all fairness, that’s not for lack of trying on McChrystal’s part:

McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It’s “insurgent math,” as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. “For a while,” says one U.S. official, “the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a ‘civ cas’ incident.” The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There’s talk of creating a new medal for “courageous restraint,” a buzzword that’s unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

In fact, the response from his command has been even more negative:

Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. “Bottom line?” says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers’ lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing.”

And if the U.S. were winning hearts and minds, perhaps — perhaps — the U.S. casualties might be worth it. But that isn’t happening:

In the first four months of this year, NATO forces killed some 90 civilians, up 76 percent from the same period in 2009 – a record that has created tremendous resentment among the very population that COIN [counterinsurgency] theory is intent on winning over. In February, a Special Forces night raid ended in the deaths of two pregnant Afghan women and allegations of a cover-up, and in April, protests erupted in Kandahar after U.S. forces accidentally shot up a bus, killing five Afghans. “We’ve shot an amazing number of people,” McChrystal recently conceded.

We’ve been in Afghanistan longer than in any other war. The person whom we went to war to get, Osama bin Laden, is still alive and not even in the country anymore. The best minds in U.S. counterinsurgency have been set on the problem of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and have come up dry. McChrystal is failing. The U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is failing. It is time to bring the troops home.

That is the fact that matters most. Whether or not Stanley McChrystal gets to keep his job or retire with the thanks of a grateful nation, while certainly important to Stanley McChrystal and those who love him and work with him, is not, ultimately, an important national concern.

The media couldn’t keep their eye on the ball in the David Stockman case in 1981. They won’t keep their eye on the ball this time. And more people, American and Afghan alike, will die unnecessarily because of it.

1 Comment

  1. And I called it. Just a little while ago on CNN, the anchor said McChrystal has been relieved, called this “a historic day,” boasted, “We’re all over this story” and said not one word about the big picture.

    Comment by Lex — Wednesday, June 23, 2010 5:05 pm @ 5:05 pm

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