The 36 Hours That Shook Washington
By Frank Rich
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, even as the monthly coalition body count has just reached a new high.
If we and the president don’t absorb these revelations and learn from them, the salutary effects of the drama’s denouement, however triumphant for Obama in the short run, will be for naught.
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 candor. Politico theorized that
That sentence was edited out of the article — in a routine updating, said Politico — 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.
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 politically motivated cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death in 2004 should have been disqualifying from the start. The official investigation into that scandal — finding that McChrystal peddled “inaccurate and misleading assertions” — was unambiguous and damning.
Once made the top commander in
We now know, thanks to
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
In the 36 hours between the Rolling Stone bombshell and McChrystal’s firing, some perennial war cheerleaders in the Beltway establishment, including the editorial page of The Washington Post and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, did rally to the general’s defense and implored Obama to keep him in place. George Stephanopoulos, reflecting a certain strain of received Beltway wisdom, warned on ABC that the president risked looking “thin-skinned and petulant” if he fired McChrystal.
But none of the general’s defenders had an argument for him or the war beyond staying the course, poor as the results have been. What McChrystal’s supporters most seemed to admire was his uniquely strong relationship with Hamid Karzai, our
You have to wonder whether McChrystal’s defenders in
The war, supported by a steadily declining minority of Americans, has no chance of regaining public favor 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. Next to unemployment and the oil spill, Karzai and
To appreciate how shielded Americans have been from
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
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs