Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Obama should fire his Afghan commander

Barack Obama has an interesting problem.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, heading up the U.S. surge in Afghanistan, has been called back to Washington. The general, a generally astute politician in his own right, co-operated with a Rolling Stone magazine profile.
The subhead captures the flavour" "Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House." McChrystal and his aides see the people elected to run the governments as incompetent schmos in their way, the article suggests.
The generals call the shots in many countries. Obama now has to decide if the U.S. is one of them.
Of course, Canada has had its flirtations with the military. Here's what I wrote in 2008 when Gen. Rick Hillier stepped down as head of the Canadian Forces.


The adulation being lavished on Gen. Rick Hillier makes me glad he's stepping down as chief of defense staff.
That's no criticism of Hillier. He's obviously smart and astute. If I were in the Canadian Forces, certainly in a management role, I'd be sad to see him go.
Hillier had a vision for the military - the equipment, budget, support and public profile it should have.
He wanted Canada to be seen as, and act like, a significant international military force - "one of the big boys."
Like a good corporate guy or politician, he set out to get what he wanted.
And he was good at it. Pushing the politicians a bit sometimes, seeking allies others, charming the media, highly quotable and keeping regular soldiers front and centre. He knew how to cast the military and himself in the best light.
Hillier became a celebrity general, something almost unprecedented in Canada.
Politicians - especially ones like Stephen Harper who shared his desire for more military spending and foreign expeditions - welcomed the chance to share the spotlight with Hillier.
But they learned quickly that Hillier wasn't afraid to use his celebrity and popularity to advance his agenda, whether the government shared it or not.
When he was sworn in as chief of defence staff in February 2005, Hillier used the ceremony - attended by then prime minister Paul Martin - to criticize the Liberal government for neglecting the armed forces.
It was an early warning. Governments that didn't accept Hillier's priorities better watch it.
And they quickly learned that Hillier was adroit in capturing headlines and public support, and setting the agenda. More adroit than the politicians.
Four months later, while government and the public were grappling with what the Afghan mission should be, Hillier defined it.
Canadian Forces were going to fight "detestable murders and scumbags," he said. Their focus wasn't reconstruction or aid. "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people," he said.
Which on one level is true. We give our forces weapons so they can kill people when necessary.
On another level, Hillier was on shakier ground. The Canadian Forces job is - or should be - to fill the role that elected representatives set.
Hillier tended to elbow those elected representatives off to the side.
Don Martin, the fine Canwest News columnist, notes that even Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan was partly Hillier's doing
"With carefully timed speeches and politically incorrect outbursts defending the needs of the soldier, Hillier dwarfed queasy voter opinion about the Afghanistan mission by focusing on strong public support for the military," Martin suggests.
The result of all this was that Hillier became more powerful, in some ways, than the defence ministers he supposedly served.
Whether it was a battle for bigger defence budgets or new arms spending or a power struggle with former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, Hillier emerged victorious.
But who should be setting the objectives for the military and making policy decisions? A career military manager with good political skills, or elected representatives?
O'Connor was a fumbling defence minister, but he was elected. No one has ever voted for Hillier.
The general is being given for a multibillion-dollar increase in military spending. New weapons programs have won quick approval thanks in part to Hillier's effective lobbying and political positioning.
His task was made easier because Canada was at war. What politician wants to be accused of depriving troops of needed equipment?
But that increases concerns about Hillier's role, particularly in steering Canada into an overseas conflict.
And again, it raises questions about what Canadians gave up - tax cuts, or improved health care - to fund the military spending Hillier so adroitly won.
"He didn't fear the politicians," Martin noted in a column on Hillier's departure. "They feared him."
Accurate, I suspect. And anytime politicians are afraid of generals who supposedly work for them, something has gone seriously wrong.
Footnote: Hillier's successes on behalf of the military raise another issue. Were the defence ministers he reported to unusually weak? Or has the increasing centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office left all ministers with such a diminished role that they can be swept aside?


DPL said...

Some generals never bother to look at the Unity of Command wall charts. That little box at the top is the elected Government. Gen. Macarthur tried going over the President's head and found himself unemployed. The list goes on. The guy from Afghanistan must have been drinking or smoking before making a fool of himself. If the President lets him off lightly it will make the President look weak. The decision should be rather soon

Anonymous said...

McChrystal wants out of the military.

What would be better than to be fired by the man you hope to replace?

McChrystal has seen that his republican soul mates have no credible candidate for 2012, so why not throw down the gauntlet early and let the forces-of-right gather behind him?

Only last year McChrystal was publically challenging the Commander in Chief by the "unprecedented" publishing of his Afghanistan war plans; now he has deliberately crossed the line again.

Let the campaigning begin!

Kim said...

My son is a reservist soon to be reg force navy. He was tasked with op podium last winter and the hot new book everyone in the barracks were reading was Gen. Hillier's new book.

I knew he wanted the book for Christmas, but I wasn't sure Gen. Hillier's legacy would prove itself a positive one. So I bought him Gen.(R)Romeo D'Allard's book instead.

The best part of the story is, we shopped in the same isle apparently, because he brought me Elizabeth May's new book and a gift card, which I used to buy the 10th anniversary edition of "No Logo" by Naomi Klein. It was a good Christmas. (Sorry to digress)

Norman Farrell said...

Fabulous decision Kim.

Ah, the wisdom of mothers. Harvard child development expert Burton White once said, "Parents should ignore experts and do what they think is correct. They will be right more often than the experts."