General fallibility

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Years ago, I bought an old Time magazine -- the issue with the 1965 Man of the Year on the cover. I stuffed it into an old picture frame and kept it around to remind me of the fallibility of men, and, even, of Time magazine. It was of Gen. William C. Westmoreland. He was the Vietnam era's Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Westmoreland was an utter failure, and I do not mean to suggest that McChrystal is the same. Yet at the time the square-jawed Westmoreland appeared on the cover of Time, he was seen as something of a savior -- the man who would lead America out of the swamp of Vietnam. When he addressed Congress in 1967, his speech was interrupted 19 times by applause. A bit more than a year later, he was gone -- replaced by Gen. Creighton Abrams, who, we are told in Lewis Sorley's "A Better War," could have won if he had only been given the chance.

I am no more familiar with McChrystal than I was with Westmoreland. I do know, though, that from time to time the media swoons for a soldier, especially a handsome one (Westy had matinee idol looks), and McChrystal -- as lean, if not as hungry, as the ambitious Cassius -- fits the bill. As with that other celebrity soldier, David Petraeus, McChrystal is a fitness buff, the sort of disciplined man less-disciplined men admire both out of senses of awe and insufficiency. Discipline and dedication are not to be belittled. Still, I cannot imagine Gen. Dwight Eisenhower putting out his cigarette and going for a four-mile run -- not unless Mamie was coming after him with a cleaver.

The other thing I know about generals is that they do not ask for less -- less equipment or less personnel. They ask for more, just as Westmoreland did in Vietnam before reality -- otherwise known as domestic politics -- forced Lyndon Johnson to rein him in. If Sorley is right about Abrams, the war could have been won with fewer men. As it turned out, South Vietnam was ultimately defeated because Congress turned its back on it -- not pretty or necessarily honorable, but effective.

This is why McChrystal's request for 40,000 or so additional troops for Afghanistan ought not to be taken as some sort of holy writ. These requests are a starting point, a place to begin the debate. Those whose battle cry is "Give the generals what they need" are actually saying "Give the generals what they want" -- which is not responsible policymaking. President Obama's protracted review of all the options is precisely the right approach. We have gone to war in a hurry once too often of late.

Whatever Obama decides concerning troop levels will have to be followed by a determined and unrelenting rollout of the administration's position. Obama ought to amble out to the White House's Truman Balcony, for it was the doughty Harry who was in a similar fix when he decided to fight an unpopular war in Korea. History says he did the right thing, but it so helped to weaken him that he didn't seek reelection. It was not for nothing that Eisenhower, the Republican presidential candidate, pledged that if he won, "I shall go to Korea." He won, and he went.

Already, Obama is paying a price for Afghanistan. In April, the public gave him a 63 percent approval rating on Afghanistan; that's now down to 45 percent. Up to now, the erosion of support for his Afghanistan policy has come from Republicans. This is as God intended. But should the president truly escalate the war, it is his Democratic base that is going to yell bloody murder. In a recent Post-ABC News poll, only about a third of Democrats favored sending an additional 40,000 troops, with 61 percent opposed -- 51 percent of them strongly so. The Nation magazine, a reliable voice of the left, calls in its latest issue for Obama to "begin planning a responsible exit strategy." He is, in fact, continuing a responsible entry strategy.

That 1965 Time cover ought to be pasted up in the White House situation room. It reminds us of a time when a president followed a much-admired general to political ruination and, it now seems, needless loss of life. McChrystal does not wear four stars for nothing. But underneath all that brass, he remains a man -- fallible and for good reason outranked by one who wears no stars at all.

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