The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

General Apologies

Letterman and McChrystal May Be Sincere but They Are Talking to the Wrong People

When CBS late night talk show host David Letterman faced a $2 million extortion threat, he neither tried to make the matter quietly go away by paying nor loudly protested his innocence. Instead, he turned in the blackmailer to authorities and confessed to his studio and television audiences last Thursday night that he was indeed guilty of having several affairs with female staffers on his show.

The confession earned applause and good reviews for Letterman. His combination of straight talk, deftly balanced with self-deprecating humor, drew particular praise. I can agree with this assessment. However poor a light Letterman’s philandering and workplace sexism casts on his character otherwise, he deserves kudos for owning up and telling the truth once caught at it.

On Monday night, Letterman was back for the first new show since his initial confession. This time, he issued a somber on-air apology to his wife, who he acknowledged had been “horribly hurt by my behavior.” Although Letterman maintains the affairs occurred before he married this past March, he and his wife, Regina Lasko, have been involved since 1986 and had a son together in 2003.

As before, Letterman mixed his contrition with humorous one-liners. Once again, the studio audience and TV critics lapped it up. Some think this scandal and Letterman’s handling of it could cement his position atop the new talk show heap resulting from Jay Leno’s departure from NBC’s Tonight Show. In Letterman’s own words, “If you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it.”

Here is where I part company with many in their continuing admiration. Issuing a general apology to his wife on the air? If Letterman did it instead of apologizing directly to his wife, he apologized to the wrong person(s). If he did it in addition to a personal apology, which I assume is most likely, it is superfluous.

In fact, I question whether it is an act of contrition at all but rather a passive-aggressive tactic on Letterman’s part to garner sympathy for himself by publicly displaying what a noble, upright kind of person he is. I have always liked Letterman and I am glad his audience is apparently not deserting him over this scandal. However, if he sincerely wants to fix things, he appears to have forgotten where his loyalties truly lie in this regard.

It is the same problem I see with General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO field commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal sparked controversy last week for publicly disagreeing with any future policy for Afghanistan besides the one he personally favors.

McChrystal strongly believes the only way to long-term military success is building trust among Afghan civilians by protecting them from the Taliban. His plan would require as many as forty thousand additional troops and has the backing of most Republican Congressional leaders.

Others within the Obama Administration, most notably Vice-President Joe Biden, as well as some Democratic Congressional leaders, support a narrower approach, more focused on counterinsurgency techniques and training Afghan forces.

President Obama invited McChrystal to present his approach via videoconference from Kabul before the national security team. The report he presented warns “failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum” over the next twelve months “risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” The other camp sharply challenged McChrystal during his presentation.

The next day, last Thursday, McChrystal gave a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, where an audience member asked him if thought the narrower option had any chance for success. “The short answer is ‘no’,” McChyrstal replied. He went on to characterize such as strategy as “short sighted” and warn it would leave Afghanistan “in chaos.”

Chastisement was quick in coming. The President summoned McChrystal to Copenhagen the next day for a private meeting aboard Air Force One. National Security Adviser James Jones dryly suggested, “It is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was equally understated but firm, asserting that military and civilian leaders “provide our best advice to the President candidly but privately.”

Counter-chastisement was equally prompt. “The White House finds a four-star scapegoat for its Afghan jitters,” trumpeted the Wall Street Journal this morning.

For his part, McChrystal was remorseful for any damage he may have caused but insisted he meant no harm and was simply trying to speak forthrightly, as encouraged by Obama, in promoting the mission given him by Obama.

As with Letterman, I question whether his London comments represent advice but rather a passive-aggressive tactic on McChrystal’s part to garner international and public sympathy, in order to force U.S. foreign policy into only one acceptable option – all the while displaying what a noble, upright kind of person he is. It is an apology in advance for failure that seeks to absolve him from future blame.

He achieved some success to this end. Yesterday, Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, defended McChrystal’s moral duty to speak out against his superiors, since he is “personally responsible for the lives of 100,000 NATO troops.” (As if, somehow, the President, Congress, Security Council, and Secretary of Defense are not?)

I agree that pulling down McChrystal as a scapegoat is wrong but I am equally repulsed seeing him propped up as a strawman. The problem is not that a general disagreed with Obama or even did so openly to his face in the national security council. The problem was going public with his objections, especially before a decision was forthcoming.

Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post sums it up best.

“What we want to achieve in Afghanistan is a political question and we don't pay our generals to do politics. That's the job of the President and Congress – and whether our elected leaders decide to pull out tomorrow or stay for a hundred years, the generals' job is to make it happen . . . If military officers want to devise and implement geopolitical strategy, they should leave their jobs and run for office.”

Bruce Ackerman, a professor at Yale Law School, argues this whole affair “should provoke a broader discussion of the meaning of civilian control [over the military] in the Twenty-First Century.” As if on cue, O’Hanlon asserts the oft-repeated hawkish saw that McChrystal’s take on things is both the correct one and justified in its promotion because, as a soldier in the field, he automatically “understands reality far better than most in Washington.”

Likewise, the Wall Street Journal chortles that McChyrstal’s critics “have very short memories,” noting that when it was learned General Eric Shinseki, now Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Obama’s Cabinet, disagreed with former President Bush over troop levels in Iraq, he became a liberal hero overnight. The Journal seems to suffer its own problem with cognitive retention by failing to note that Shinseki was summarily fired as a result.

McChrystal recently told Newsweek he would not resign if the Administration ultimately rejects his request for more troops. Although his concern for the soldiers under his command motivates him to speak out, he apparently has not thought about or does not care the impact upon their morale if he subsequently asks them to follow him in a mission he has openly condemned as doomed to failure.

If the narrower option for Afghanistan prevails and McChyrstal really believes it is un-winnable, he should immediately relinquish his command and turn it over to someone who can both follow orders and believe in them. If he does not truly believe in his own pronouncements, he needs to make a very public, very general confession and apology.

And he needs to think very hard about where his loyalties really lie in this regard.

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