Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unhappy General Stanley

In the brilliant work The Pirates of Penzance, Sir William S. Gilbert's plot includes a Major-General (who happens to have the last name Stanley); this Major-General tells the pirates that he is an orphan, in order to play upon their sympathies and keep them from stealing his daughters (to marry them, of course; this was Victorian entertainment, after all). Eventually, the pirates learn the awful (though rather unbelievable) truth: Major-General Stanley is not, after all, an orphan. The Pirate King confronts him with these words:
With base deceit
You worked upon our feelings!
Revenge is sweet,
And flavours all our dealings!
With courage rare
And resolution manly,
For death prepare,
Unhappy Gen'ral Stanley.
I couldn't help but think of this quote as beleaguered General Stanley McChrystal flew to Washington to face the music created by an unmelodious article in Rolling Stones. Of course, General McChrystal wasn't facing death--but then, neither was the fictional General Stanley, given the comic ineptitude of the Pirate King and his band, and given Gilbert's extraordinary ability to extricate his characters from convoluted plots by...creating even more convoluted ones.

Now, why on earth would comic ineptitude and convoluted plots come to mind? Could it be this mention of Rahm Emanuel--or maybe this whole piece? Excerpt:

Mr. Obama, aides say, consulted with advisers — some, like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who warned of the dangers of replacing General McChrystal, others, like his political advisers, who thought he had to go. He reached out for advice to a soldier-statesman, Colin L. Powell. He identified a possible successor to lead the war in Afghanistan.

And then, finally, the president ended General McChrystal’s command in a meeting that lasted only 20 minutes. According to one aide, the general apologized, offered his resignation and did not lobby for his job.

After a seesaw debate among White House officials, “there was a basic meeting of the minds,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a major player in the deliberations. “This was not good for the mission, the military and morale,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Mr. Obama has forced out officials before, including the director of national inte

lligence, Dennis C. Blair; the White House counsel, Gregory Craig; even General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan.

But this is the highest profile sacking of his presidency. The time between Mr. Obama’s first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation offers an insight into the president’s decision-making process under intense stress: He appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive.

Well, that's one way to look at it, anyway.

I'm not unsympathetic to the dilemma President Obama faced on this one. The thinly-veiled contempt with which General McChrystal's aides spoke, as quoted in the Rolling Stones article, could not be left unaddressed; nor could the general's own disdain for the Vice President. At the same time, though, the president's timetable on the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, already lagging, now seems even more unlikely. The general put Obama in a pretty tough situation.

But this situation wasn't unavoidable. To an extent, what contempt or disdain the Commander-in-Chief may get from military leaders may be, at least a little, his own fault. That may or may not be fair--but a real leader doesn't worry about the fairness or unfairness of a negative view of his policies or competence, so much as he considers whether the negative view has any truth to it.

General Stanley McChrystal may be "unhappy General Stanley" after all of this. The question is whether President Obama, in his role as Commander in Chief, will take seriously the idea that both his leadership and that of the vice president may not be inspiring as much confidence among our troops--and their leaders--as is necessary during the prosecution of a war.

1 comment:

LarryD said...

So the President has time to read a Rolling Stone article, but not a 10-page law from Arizona? Hmmmm.....

McCrystal acted stupidly, and got what he deserved. But it will be interesting to see what the left will be saying about his replacement. After all, it wasn't that long ago that MoveOn.org attacked Petraeus with a full page ad that read "Betray Us".