Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The McChrystal Melee

CNN is reporting that President Barack Obama has relieved General Stanley McChrystal of his command in Aghganistan. This is hardly surprising, as it seemed highly unlikely that the President had brought the General back to Washington for a beer summit, a stern talk, or even a come to Jesus meeting. Besides, the kind of insubordinate talk appearing in the article, and never denied by the General, left the President with no real choice.

A few random observations:
  1. While the media and the public have rightly given a great deal of attention to the foolish rhetoric of Gen. McChrystal, they have largely ignored the other revealing criticism of him that is a major subject of the article. Evidently, a significant number of troops believe that the rules for engagement they are forced to live under put their lives at unnecessary risk. While the insubordination of Gen. McChrystal is a noteworthy subject, our troops deserve for attention to be given to the other matter.
  2. After reading the article's description of Gen. McChrystal's vision of nation building , does any thinking person really believe that is a legitimate role for the U.S. military?
  3. What were the General and his staff thinking when they made these comments in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter? That they would look really cool when it came out in a really neat mag? Was it stupidity or arrogance?

Sunday, June 06, 2010

What Obama Should Have Done

As the Obama administration takes a beating over its response, or lack thereof, to the Gulf oil spill, allies of the administration complain about the unfairness of such criticism, arguing that the spill is the problem of BP and that there is little or nothing that the federal government could do about it.

There is some truth to that, though the administration clearly could have acted more quickly on requests from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal to approve the construction of sand barriers to protect the coast. There also could have been better front end coordination of the government response.

Nonetheless, the fundamental problem with the administration's response is their awareness of their likely inability to do anything to stop the flow of oil. They likely knew from the start that this posed the potential for an ecological catastrophe. Then, they made an unfortunate, possibly fatal for the credibility of this administration, decision: to distance themselves from the possible calamity.

Not wanting to attach the President's identity to an inevitable disaster is understandable as a political response, but not as one of a true leader. President Obama, who was nearly omnipresent during his first six months in office as the official spokesman for every matter from health care to the location of future Olympic games to the competence of the Cambridge, Massachusetts police department, had little to say in the first several weeks that oil flowed freely into the Gulf of Mexico. Some would say that criticizing the President for being too public earlier and too inaccessible later shows inconsistency. In actuality, such criticism rightly recognizes that the President has no concept of when his leadership is most needed.

So, what should the President have done if he knew that his options were limited? He should have taken the risk of levelling with the American people about the probability of disaster while pledging to marshall every available resource to attack the problem. He should have immediately formed a working group -- not a task force, but a working group --of key government and private sector experts to work along with BP to drive a national response. He should have pledged regular and honest updates on status and impact.

Political responses often work when the crises are either small or imagined. They don't work when the crisis is great and the risks are grave. The Obama administration responded to a grave crisis with a political response. They are reaping the whirlwind.