June 24th, 2010 |
High Noon At The White House
Before going to bed two nights ago, I visualized General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in mid-air on his flight back home to meet President Obama at the White House. I then peeked in on Mr. Obama readying himself for bed. I wondered if either one would sleep well, or sleep at all.
This meeting between McChrystal and Obama was classic theater, shades of the movie “High Noon.” It brought back memories of when President Truman called General MacArthur home in 1951 to chastise him and relieve him of his post during the Korean War. MacArthur’s letter criticizing Truman didn’t appear in a magazine, like McChrystal’s interview which appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine. MacArthur’s words, written in a letter, were read on the floor of the House of Representatives and distributed to the press.
This issue of Notes is devoted to the talking points and tipping points which surround this dramatic and important moment involving General McChrystal, President Obama and our war in Afghanistan. But, before I say more, I should offer a word of explanation about talking points and tipping points.
Talking Points & Tipping Points
The term talking points is quite common these days. Unfortunately, it has become a derisive term employed by politicians. Both the political right and left love to say that their political opponents cook up talking points for the media, as if the information presented is bogus, party-line propaganda. In fact, comedian media mogul Jon Stewart, loves to belittle political talking points as nothing more than a superficial examination of issues.
The dictionary definition, however, rescues the term. “A talking point in debate or discourse is a succinct statement designed to persuasively support one side taken on an issue.”
The term tipping points has become popular as a result of Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.” Gladwell’s point is simply this: Little changes can have big effects. Something which seems very small can result in a huge turn of events. As the old saying goes, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Having defined my terms, it’s time to offer a few of my own talking points about the McChrystal-Obama confrontation, and how I see what took place at the White House as a tipping point for President Obama.
So What Did Take Place At The White House?
I heard someone on television say that General McChrystal had been “taken to the outhouse” by President Obama. Hardly. What he meant was that McChrystal had been taken to the woodshed.
For my young readers, the term refers to a day long-gone when a father would take his son out to the woodshed for a spanking.
Since there isn’t any woodshed at the White House, Obama did his handiwork in the Oval Office. McChrystal, who is known as a straight-talker, got punished for criticizing the Obama team’s conduct of the war—comments made at a Paris pub in the presence of too much booze, and in front of a Rolling Stone interviewer.
As The Worm Turns
There is an old proverb that says “Tread on a worm and it will turn.” This means that even the most defenseless creature will, when sufficiently provoked, attempt to defend itself.
When General MacArthur gave his farewell speech before Congress (interrupted fifty times by applause) after having been fired by President Truman, he concluded his remarks with these words: “I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
General MacArthur did not fade away, nor will McChrystal. Even though he left the White House, having swallowed his punishment quietly, humbly, apologetically, and in an honorable military way, the worm will turn. Mark my words, the worm will turn when folks begin to feel sorry for General McChrystal, and remorseful for having to watch this fallen warrior bite the dust. In the long run, most Americans, when given the choice between siding with a soldier or a politician, will choose the man in uniform.
The worm may turn even more vigorously as the war turns even more deadly and voices are raised which say, “Obama should have listened to this straight-talking general who told the truth about the ambivalent and conflicted policy makers in Washington. Sure, McChrystal broke a time-honored tradition which prohibits military personnel from openly criticizing a superior officer. But Obama should have exercised his authority by slapping McChrystal’s wrist for his subordination and sent him back to Afghanistan with a renewed commitment to get the job done no matter how long it takes to win this battle.”
How Long Will It Take To Win This Battle?
Over the Memorial Day weekend the Turner Classic Movies channel offered a large menu of old war movies. I suspect that a few more will air over the Fourth of July holiday.
Watching bits and pieces of these black and white films, there was, of course, no technicolor blood. Instead, there was a sheen of romanticism that covered the action—a diaphanous scrim constructed to soften, even hide, the the brutality of war
I grew up with these films. They hid more than they revealed.
Albert Einstein had it right when he wrote sharply about war, as if he wanted to rip all romantic notions from the subject matter. “He who joyfully marches to music in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.”
That said, let’s be clear—crystal clear (I might say McChrystal clear) about the policy the Good General, and his replacement, General David Petraeus have each committed themselves to in this already nine year old war in Afghanistan.
Russia spent nine years back in the 1980’s fighting to control and occupy Afghanistan. It is estimated that one million people died as the Soviet Union threw its mighty military force in harms way in a war that consumed 25 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product. Despite this commitment of troops and money, Russia was eventually defeated and forced out of Afghanistan. The war became Russia’s Vietnam experience and eventually contributed to Russia’s loss of the Cold War.
The diaphanous scrim that covers the war in Afghanistan must eventually be removed if our nation wants to see the reality that lies behind the romantic myth that we can win this war. The ongoing commitment that President Obama has made toward counterinsurgency (COIN) in Afghanistan guarantees an extended and costly fight—one that the American public will eventually abandon support for. COIN is a bankrupt currency.
Exit strategy? Forget it. Look instead for a metaphor—a symbol to describe our presence in Afghanistan. One might best consider Jean-Paul Sartre’s play in which three characters are locked in a room with no windows, no mirrors and a locked door. Near the end of the play, one of the characters demands to be let out. His demand causes the door to open but the three still cannot find the courage to leave.
The play, in case you hadn’t already guessed its title, is No Exit.
A New Rock Star On The Scene
Candidate Obama, as he campaigned, supported a continued war effort in Afghanistan. I cringed each time he made that commitment. But since I am not a one issue guy when it comes to voting for candidates, I voted for Obama hoping that his supporters could turn him around on this war. I hoped that, once elected, he would see the folly of our continued military presence.
The poet, Alexander Pope coined the phrase hope springs eternal in the human breast, but in all honesty, this breast of mine is devoid of hope when it comes to Obama pulling our troops out of Afghanistan and back home any time soon. Although I live in the United States, hold a U.S. passport, and vote and pay taxes as a U.S. citizen, I feel like a Cold War Russian trapped in an endless war, where lives and dollars are being wasted.
Remember, if you will, that Obama did not support a counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan until he became president. After he was elected, he sent General McChrystal, who “wrote the book” on counterinsurgency, to lead that policy in Afghanistan. Now he has appointed General Petraeus to carry out the same policy.
In other words, McChrystal may have disappeared from the stage, but the same rotten play goes on. Petraeus and Obama are on the same page when it comes to policy. When our president, following McChrystal’s dismissal, said in his address to the nation that the policy for war in Afghanistan would not change, I believed him.
Following McChrystal’s dismissal, Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Senator Bill Nelson from Florida met with General Petraeus and issued this statement: “In our discussion, General Petraeus reiterated that this change was only a change in personnel, not policy. He expressed a readiness to carry forward the U.S. strategy on the ground in Afghanistan that he played a key role in developing.”
The Nebraska Nelson showed up on cable news saying this about Petraeus: “He’s the guy who can take over and ram this policy through.” And how can he do that? Simple. As NBC correspondent Richard Engel put it, Petraeus is a “rock star.” Who knows, perhaps he might eventually do what General Colin Powell couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Petraeus could very well be an electable presidential candidate.
Obama’s Tipping Point
Prior to McChrystal’s fall from grace, the nation was focused 24/07 on the BP oil spill that is ravaging our precious waters and the wildlife dependent upon those waters, as well as the people whose very livelihood depend on clean water. .
Prior to calling General McChrystal home, President Obama was being warned that his lack of attention, and his tardiness in addressing the spill, might very well cost him his home—eviction from the White House in the next election.
One political analyst, frustrated over Obama’s temperament around this disaster in the Gulf, wondered out loud why our leader can’t seem to work up a good old display of anger. Maybe, he asked, our calm mannered president is lacking in pissedoffterone.
I think you know very well what he’s talking about. He’s not hankering for a leader stuck in the angry mode. No, he’s merely looking for more than cool. I am too. Let me put it this way: There’s a time for Zen and a time for Zing. Zing, that’s the thing your supporters are looking for, Mr. President.
I hear a lot of my friends say that President Obama has disappointed them over more than one issue. My take on it, however, runs deeper than that. Forget my disappointment. I believe he has disappointed himself by not living up to the serious change he promised to deliver around the way business is transacted in Washington.
In a previous issue of Notes I agreed with Garry Wills, when he wrote in The New York Review of Books, that Obama should forget about another term in the White House and just plunge ahead with his plans for change, as if he would only be a one term president.
Here’s where the tipping point I mentioned above comes into the picture. I am talking about presidential tipping points—those moments or events, some big and some small—that proved fatal to our recent presidents. Think tipping points: The Tet Offensive in Vietnam for Lyndon Johnson. Watergate for Richard Nixon. The Iran Hostage Crisis for Jimmy Carter. The lackluster presidential campaign performance of George “Papa” Bush up against Bill Clinton.
I’ll make an observation, even though it may rub a few of my friends the wrong way. The war in Afghanistan stands a good chance of being President Obama’s tipping point. His willingness to walk the same path toward war that his predecessor, George W. Bush walked may very well tip him out of the Washington and back to Chicago in 2012.
Ticker Tape News
Watching cable news, prior to the President Obama’s address to the nation, my eyes caught sight of the moving ticker tape flashing news at the bottom of the screen.
• At least 115 million widows around the world live in devastating poverty. The most dire consequences are faced by 2 million Afghan widows and at least 740,000 Iraqi widows who have lost husbands to war.
• A Pew Research Center for the People and The Press/Smithsonian Magazine poll reports that 41 per cent of Americans polled say that Jesus will return to earth within the next 40 years.
How does one consume a diet of news like that? Okay, so let’s not question the forty one percent—which translates into four out of every ten people I pass on the street while walking. The only question that hangs in the air is this one: When Jesus comes back, will he find you hard at work doing what the Bible requires of believers—that is, taking care of widows and orphans? And better still, will Jesus find you hard at work organizing to stop your nation from eliminating war—one of the reasons we have so many widows and orphans?
A bumper sticker I saw last week on the back of a car says what I’m trying to say, but with fewer words. JESUS IS COMING BACK. LOOK BUSY.
Always Leave Them Laughing
George M. Cohan, who I mentioned in my last issue of Notes, wrote a song way back in 1903 entitled “Always Leave Them Laughing.” After this rather heavy issue of Notes, that’s my intent—to leave you laughing. And what better subject is there to laugh about than television’s endless subject for advertisements—erectile dysfunction (ED).
Prior to Father’s Day, my Sunday newspaper arrived with a USA Weekend insert full of articles about men’s health. Inside was an article “For Men Only” by Dr. Oz—the wizard doctor on TV. Honest, what I am about to tell you is true. The good doctor is concerned that Viagra might not be the answer for men who think they have ED. Perhaps the problem is psychological or may be the result of being overweight. So here’s a tip for how a man can tell if he needs medication.
“Before going to bed,” says Dr. Oz, wrap a strip of lick-and-stick stamps around your penis. If they break apart overnight, you’re having erections while asleep, and the problem is probably psychological, not physical.”
Thinking about this engaging subject, it came to me that men could very well be valuable assets in helping to rescue our economically distraught U.S. Postal Service. Buy stamps, brothers, so we can keep our post offices open and the mail arriving daily without interruption. We certainly don’t want our nation to suffer from postal dysfunction.
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