A key advantage of democracy over dictatorship, it is often argued, is that accurate information flows much more effectively upwards to the top under the former than the latter system. Dictators do not like to here unwelcome truths, and their toadies make sure that they do not do so. In consequence, their populations suffer from repeated famines as agricultural policies repeatedly fail; and their leaders embark on unwinnable wars and battles because no one will advise them to hold or to redirect their fire.
Unfortunately, when democracies elect weak and less than smart leaders, they also become vulnerable to the same phenomenon, as is currently the case of the Obama adminstration in the United States. For such leaders know their own personal limitations, and fear that stronger and smarter counsellors will displace them from decision-making authority. So, they too choose to listen to the true believers and to the sycophants, in order to make-believe that they themselves are smarter ythan they are. Barack Obama appears to have fallen prey to such temptation, with serious consequences for the U.S. war against the Taliban, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
General Stan McChrystal, either by accident or by design, has exposed the soft-under-belly of the Obama adminstration’s war policy. In so doing, he has rendered a great service to his nation, even at the cost of breaching military code, and thus exposing himself to dismissal by his Commander-in-Chief. For if an Emperor has no clothes, and a brave soul tells him that he is uniquely exposed, that Emperor confirms his own stupidity should he choose to remain naked while killing the messenger who advised him that all is much less than well in the big picture of things.
What then is the essence of the truth that has been forced upon the President. First, that the Vice-President that he selected is a truly stupid man, prone to intellectual incoherence that ill-fits his office. When such a senior official chooses continually to criticize a war strategy - counterinsurgency or COIN – that has been approved by the President and that is in process throughout the war zone, he deserves to be disciplined, not the general whose forces risk their lives on the field of battle.
Second, when the President attends an initial meeting with his chosen general without briefing himself for the occasion, and offering only a few short minutes of his time, it is right that he should be publicly rebuked for his inefficiency and laziness. The golf course and the basketball hoops should not lead a President astray from the work for which he is paid so well.
Third, when a President covers for his own limitations by appointing unqualified individuals such as Jim Jones to the key position of National Security Advisor, Karl Eikenberry to the key position of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, and Clinton re-tread, Richard Holbrooke as U.S. Special Envoy, he deserves tro have his fingers publicly rapped by his lead general in the field.
One thing is surely clear in all the upheaval that has followed from the Rolling Stones article that outlines General McChrystal’s reactions to such policy errors by the Obama administration. The appointment of McChrystal to lead the war in Afghanistan is the one first-rate decision that the President has made in that field. No doubt the President now feels that he has made a mistake; for, by appointing competence rather than incompetence, he has opened himself up to the very criticism that he most feared. Now, however, he has a genuine chance to redeem himself.
If President Obama is capable of rising above his personal limitations, he will congratulate General McChrystal for telling the truth, while asking him in future to report those truths exclusively to the Oval Office. He will then muzzle his Vice-President, replace his National Security Advisor and his Special Envoy, and recall his Afghanistan Ambassador, as he confirms unequivocal support for COIN under the high quality leadership of General Stan McChrystal. If McChrystal proves to be successful in that war, then the President might consider awarding him that much-coveted fifth star. And that would be the mark of a true President of a great nation.