Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another fine mess, Stanley

Desert Storm by Pants

I've just read the full Rolling Stone piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal by Michael Hastings. You will all know its contents by now. Any given precis will have furnished you with a more than fair summary. It's worth reading the whole article for the studious context that is the signature of Rolling Stone at its in-depth best.

The title of the piece is The Runaway General. The long subtitle reads,

Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.

Is anyone surprised that the US military is composed of good ole boys of a calibre that even Stanley Kubrick would have been hard-pressed to imagine? Is anyone vaguely perplexed that a general with a reputation for waywardness would turn out to be a pftr-baitin', nggr-hatin' redneck? Does anyone even think President Obama didn't know what this guy was before he put him in the job?

I am in the same age bracket as Stanley McChrystal. Rolling Stone was huge to our generation. It was our lone voice back then. Even growing up in Australia, I lavished some of my babysitting and milkbar-tending earnings while I was still at school on airmailed Rolling Stone. If you wanted to know what was happening beyond your comfortable, middle-class upbringing, you went to Rolling Stone. It was the place where every important edge got cut. Rolling Stone was the outlaw of journalism. It went for power's jugular, and often struck like a vampire of truth.

There is no way, even if he had been brought up in a bunker, that General McChrystal could have not understood the possible implications of having a reporter from Rolling Stone embedded in your Paris hotel suite and subsequent sortie to an Irish bar where generous amounts of alcohol were apparently imbibed and lips loosened accordingly. McChrystal can only have wanted this confrontation.

The grenade is now in President Obama's court. Like he's got nothing better to do right now. Very obviously he has two choices, neither of them particularly pleasant.

If he sacks McChrystal, he'll need a better general standing by. Someone he can trust and who can potentially prove more competent as the military commander in Afghanistan. He's already sacked one - two might not look good. If he does have that ace in that particular fox hole, now would be good time to play it.

More likely, he doesn't have that dream general in his pocket. If he forgives McChrystal, he'll have to find a way to do it that triggers a paradigm shift in the way Americans perceive strength and weakness in leaders. It could be a golden opportunity, albeit cast in an extremely narrow band.

McChrystal has pegged Obama as someone who is 'uncomfortable and intimidated' in the presence of the military establishment. Hell, who wouldn't be? Imagine having a skinny, scowling man in full camouflage gear come and sit on your sofa for an informal meeting and pierce you with his slate-blue, drill-down eyes. Dubya loved to get all tostie with the military but that's not Obama's style. Yet, he's McChrystal's boss and, indeed, the boss of everyone in the military.

What President Obama can do, and I hope he knows it, is deploy the one great power that he really does wield in this situation. He has the opportunity to exercise tolerance in his dealings with a subordinate. He has the authority to chastise with kindness a man of lesser character. And most importantly, he has a chance to change the 'kick ass' nature of the power dialogue that he's been so tragically drawn into by the Mexican Gulf oil disaster.

He's the President - right here and right now. Maybe he can use this opportunity to step forward and say, 'you know what, wouldn't it be great if we didn't do stoopid as our default response to absolutely everything?' It is one of those times when changing up the language might really matter.