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Opinion Focus With Eugene Robinson: McChrystal should have advised Obama privately

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Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, October 6, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Oct. 6 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Eugene Robinson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly conversation. Today's column echoed SecDef Gates in urging Gen. Stanley McChrystal and other military brass to give their advice on Afghanistan (and Iraq) to the president privately, since they're not the ones who make political decisions about where and why we fight. But I'm sure we'll get into other issues as well. Let's go.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Robinson, you seem to have a pretty tenuous grasp on the military-civilian dynamic. Of course our military is controlled by civilians, and our CINC is a civilian. But I seem to remember that liberals like you crowed "let the generals speak!" whenever they disagreed with Bush. Now that the shoe's on the other foot, it's salute and shut up. Or is this just military racism rearing its ugly head again? That's usually the case, huh?

Eugene Robinson: You will be disappointed to find -- if you bother to look -- that I've been consistent on this. When a British general opined in 2006 that Britain should pull its troops out of Iraq, I wrote that Tony Blair ought to fire him. As you'll recall, I was no fan of the Iraq war. But I want elected officials to make those decisions, not unelected generals.

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San Diego: Thanks for the chats, Gene. My question may be more directed at the other side of the editorial/news divide, but with regard to the piece in today's on-line WaPo highlighting Orly Taitz, godmother of the birther movement, all I can really ask is: Why?

The writer of the article notes that "Taitz is a serious player in the apparently unsinkable birther movement." Is it really unsinkable, though, because there is any validity at all to the group's arguments, or is it unsinkable because outlets such as the WaPo apparently feel the need to keep it afloat?

Eugene Robinson: I'm getting a lot of questions about the Orly Taitz piece. I thought it did a great job of answering questions that have been nagging at me since the "birther" thing began: Who is this woman, what's her agenda and why is she so impervious to established fact? So I was glad to see the story. But I don't want to dodge your basic question, which is a good one: Why pay any more attention to these people than, say, to your average naked guy on the street corner screaming that the sky is falling? I guess I come down on the side of more information rather than less. I don't think sane people will be made insane by exposure to the life and times of Orly Taitz.

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washingtonpost.com: Orly Taitz's Crusade to Challenge President Obama's Legitimacy (Post, Oct. 6)

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Kingston, NY: Eugene, While trying to find statistics on self-identified conservatives, I came across a new CBS-Times poll claiming that a plurality of Americans (including R's) support the public option. Isn't this real news that should be SHOUTED by the MSN? This runs contrary to what is being espoused by the senate, by Republicans, by the tea parties and by blue-dog Democrats. It seems that the news just repeats the sometimes false claims of politicians, over and over until they become fact.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that we should give more prominence to the fact that the public option has tons of public support. There is a caveat, however: Given the way the Senate works, or doesn't work, you really have to look at opinion state by state. In the Senate, the views of those living in Wyoming (which has more tumbleweeds than people) carry as much weight as the views of those living in California or New York.

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Silver Spring, Md.: So do you think McChrystal should have said nothing publicly, and then resigned if the President opted for the "Biden Plan"?

Also, you stated "I want elected officials to make those decisions, not unelected generals."

Is McChrystal saying he should be the one to make those decisions? Or is he just stating his opinion (albeit publicly)?

Eugene Robinson: If McChrystal felt strongly enough about it, then yes, he could have resigned. Or he could have resolved to try to make a more minimalist strategy work. He had a duty to give his opinion, privately. Publicly, no.

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Laurel, Md.: Eugene, we had a chat last hour about "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead" and the discussant expressed the need for the conservatism to attract more minorities voters. On what issues do you think conservatism could make itself more appealing to African-Americans?

Eugene Robinson: Education (charter schools and vouchers), urban economic development, even some cultural issues like prayer in the schools. The problem is that the Republican Party has convinced African Americans that they are not welcome. Until the party changes that perception, it won't get anywhere. (Republicans are now performing the same parlor trick with Hispanic voters. An incredible mistake.)

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Northern Virginia: I was a bit flummoxed by the skit at the beginning of SNL saying that Obama had achieved nothing so far. To me, the stimulus package was stunning and is still rolling out across probably a dozen major policy areas (medical and scientific research, smart grid, electronic medical records, renewable energy, retrofitting buildings, education reform, tax cuts, aid for state governments, you name it). And they've done a lot more than that one law, from expanding health insurance to more kids to equal pay for women to smartly delaying and better managing the digital TV transition, which went off without a hitch, not to mention banning torture and setting the Guantanamo closure in motion. Plus a wonderful new Supreme Court Justice.

Are they just doing a TERRIBLE job communicating these achievements (especially the stimulus-related stuff)? Or does the SNL skit and similar criticism boil down to the don't ask don't tell hesitation, which I agree is shameful?

Eugene Robinson: The SNL skit was not "fair," but of course it's not SNL's job to be fair. The show is supposed to be over-the-top and funny. I agree with the point you make about communicating the administration's achievements, though. For some reason, the message doesn't seem to be getting through. On the stimulus, especially, the specifics of the legislation seem to get lost amid the cacophony.

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Glenmont: Michael Steele feels welcome in the Republican party.

Eugene Robinson: Yeah, but you get the feeling that one day he'll show up at work and they will have changed the locks.

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Manhattan, Kans.: Hi Gene,

In the last few days, we've seen some important Republican voices--Governor Schwarzenegger, Tommy Thompson, and Bill Frist--come out in support of the health-care reform bill working its way through the Senate Finance Committee. Is it possible that Congressional Republicans may have to rethink their just-say-no Waterloo strategy and declare their independence from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh?

Eugene Robinson: Yes. The conventional wisdom is that time is the enemy of health care reform. I'm not so sure about that. It remains clear that voters do want some kind of meaningful reform, and I think it's becoming clear that "do nothing" is a precarious position to take.

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Southern Maryland: I suspect that Polanki's defenders in Hollywood cannot accept that someone capable of outstanding art can also be capable of appalling inhumanity, as if there was any connection between one's character and one's art. What do you think of that theory?

Eugene Robinson: I think Roman Polanski's defenders are simply out of touch with reality as we know it. They should look into the case and read the victim's grand jury testimony. What amazes me is that we haven't heard statements of outrage -- directed at Polanski's defenders -- from prominent women in Hollywood. Or are they afraid to offend powerful men who have decided to let bygones be bygones.

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Akron, Ohio: As a military wife, I understand the importance of military order and command. Should the general give details and speeches? Maybe yes - if the information was already given to the President. I'm confident that the general deliberated his actions before he spoke - he above all understands military command.

However, the President has chosen to spend weeks "deliberately deliberating" on what to do, while more men are dying in Afghanistan, while the President is rushing oversees to support an Olympic bid, and he is more worried about legislation that will not be voted on this or next week - while soldiers remain in harms way. Where are Obama's priorities? He campaigned on winning this war - now its time to listen to his generals, support them, and let them win the war.

Also, I'm rather tired of this war being compared to Vietnam. The domino theory that got us into Vietnam was wrong and the US should not have gone. Why are we in Afghanistan? Not because of some stupid theory but because the country was governed by a group that supported those who killed over 3,000 lives on US soil and that group is actively trying to obtain and resume power.

Eugene Robinson: But don't you want the president to think about what to do next in Afghanistan? Wouldn't you be more irate if he sent more young men and women into harm's way without clear goals or a clear strategy? I would be. I agree that Afghanistan isn't Vietnam. But we have to at least consider the possibility that it could actually be worse. It's not easy to see the way forward, and we'd better think about it before just barging ahead blindly.

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Wokingham, UK: If McChrystal feels impelled to make political statement and if his British counterparts join in pretty loudly, as they are doing, do we have very worrying signs not just of politicisation but of demoralisation in our armed forces?

Eugene Robinson: I had a chat with a retired U.S. army general yesterday who volunteered that he is very worried about what he sees as politicization among his active-duty colleagues. A slippery slope.

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Timken, Kans.: Hi, Gene, I see and hear you regularly and respect your views. What is your take on the mess that Sen. Ensign, NV, has created with both a sordid affair and then an attempt to use his influence to obtain jobs for both Mr and Mrs Hampton. If he abused his Sen. authority and power to assist Mr., shouldn't Ensign be called out in the Senate? Could you apply some public editorial pressure?

Eugene Robinson: Sounds like a good idea for a column.

My time is up for today, folks. Thanks so much, and I'll see you again next week.

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