General McChrystal and the Wages of Hypocrisy

News Abroad

Mr. LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, and author of An Impossible Peace: Oslo and the Burdens of History (Zed Books, 2009). His blog can be found here.

Of the many questions surrounding the sudden career implosion of General Stanley McChrystal, the one to which no one has yet been able to offer a satisfactory answer is why.

Could it really be that one of the gurus of twenty-first-century counter-insurgency and black ops, the man responsible for rewriting the army's counter-insurgency field manual, for finding and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and helping turn Iraq back from the brink, somehow didn't understand that you can't toss profanity laden insults at the civilian chain of command and continue to run their war?
Many commentators have suggested his ill-chosen words in the now infamous Rolling Stone interview, and the even more damaging statements by several of his close aides, reflect an increasingly politicized, right-wing military, an ever growing majority of whose officers are evangelical Christian Republicans who seem willing to put their faith above their oath to uphold and protect the Constitution and the pluralistic, civilian-governed society founded upon it.

Indeed, the President's remarks explaining why he removed McChrystal touch on several of these issues, as he argued that the comments in the Rolling Stone interview “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”

Others argue that unlike his successor, David Petraeus, who is famous for encouraging divergent points of view, McChrystals special ops background and close knit circle of aides has made him dismissive of any views that didn't fully support his own.  And even through President Obama gave him most of what he asked for when he approved the Afghanistan troop surge that is now entering its ninth month, the divergence of opinion within the administration and the president's unwillingness to commit to an open-ended engagement in Afghanistan left he and his team resentful and fearful that the tools and timetable he was given are not extensive enough to succeed in the core mission of his counterinsurgency strategy:  to win over the local population by defending the important population centers, limiting civilian casualties, bolstering support for the Afghan government and where necessary (which is almost everywhere) creating the very infrastructure necessary for a state viably to function.

And some, like Michael Hastings, the freelance reporter whose story ended McChrystal's career, believe that he simply became a “runaway general” who “seized control of the war” by focusing more on his supposed enemies in the White House than on crafting a politically viable strategy for ending the U.S. occupation.

All these hypotheses certainly have their merits, but there is likely an even deeper reason for the ill-considered remarks by the general and his “Team America” (as his crew liked to refer to itself):  They were operating in an environment of significant and increasing hypocrisy at the political level and intellectual dishonesty at the level of policy and even propaganda.  This situation has produced a level of cognitive dissonance which became so corrosive that those at the center of the Afghanistan mission could not stop themselves from revealing this reality to the outside world when presented with the opportunity, however ill-advised doing so might have been for their careers and the mission more broadly.

The Long Tradition of Hypocrisy

Chapter Seven of the Counter-insurgency Manual (“Leadership and Ethics for Counterinsurgency”) that McChrystal supposedly adopted as his blueprint for turning around the war begins by declaring the need for senior commanders “proactively to establish and maintain the proper ethical climate of their organizations,” one based on the “inextricable link” between honor and morality.  Because “insurgency is more than combat between armed groups; it is a political struggle with a high level of violence,” the successful commander will “feel the pulse of the local populace, understand their motivations, and care about what they want and need.  Genuine compassion and empathy for the populace provide an effective weapon against insurgents.”

And yet, after one year in country, McChrystal's war was not going well.  Indeed, one of the few figures who came out in support of him in the last few days was the embattled Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose government is racked by so much corruption and has so little legitimacy among the majority of Afghans that his support demonstrates precisely how out of touch with ordinary Afghans McChrystal and his team remain.

More important than the negative endorsement of Karzai, however, is the reality that it is practically impossible to maintain a correspondence, never mind an “inextricable link,” between ethics, honor and morality, and the messy—and in Afghanistan, often bloody—business of politics.  In fact, politics has been described as little more than “organized hypocrisy,” with good reason.  However much governments are supposed to represent “the people,” the interests of rulers and states to maintain and even increase their power rarely coincide with those of people to be free of state coercion, control, and even violence.

An Ancient Problem

Hypocrisy is a very old concept; it is discussed in numerous places in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as well as the Qur'an, in the Buddhist and Taoist scriptures and, with strikingly similar language, in the works of philosophers from the ancient Greeks to the founders of modern political theory.  The root of the English word comes from the Greek and then Latin, and means, originally, playing or acting out a part on a stage and at the same time suggests an inability honestly to decide on what one believes or feels.

It is clearly the provenance of politicians, for whom “acting the part,” and especially, espousing beliefs and/or policies that they know can or at least will not be pursued in office is one of the requirements of the job.

The idea of hypocrisy (although not the Hebrew word) is among the most important concepts in the Hebrew Bible, and particularly in the Prophets such as Isaiah, Job, Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos, all of whom rail against those who are externally religious and follow the proper rituals, yet behave immorally by supporting injustice or oppression, especially through flattering and deceiving people with their “tongue,” as would any hypocritical politician.  As God says to Israel in the Book of Amos, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies.  Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them... But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:21-4).

The theme of hypocrisy is picked up in the New Testament and is one of the behaviors that most angered Jesus, particularly as portrayed in the Gospel of Matthew, where he condemns people who “do not practice what they preach (Matthew, 23:3).  In the centuries between the Hebrew Prophets and the time of Jesus, Plato and Aristotle would grapple with the implications of hypocrisy, with the former in The Apology arguing that the hypocrisy and ignorance of the Senate were behind the accusations against and ultimately murder of his teacher, Socrates.

Not surprising, hypocrisy (roughly translated as “nifaq” in Arabic) is also a major theme in the Qur'an, where it’s mentioned well over two dozen times in various forms, as well as in the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet, and Islamic theology more broadly.  As in the Old and New Testaments, the main criticism of the Prophet is of people who are “double-faced.”  “Most hateful it is with Allah that you say that which you do not do,” is how the Qur'an describes it (61:3).  Adopting a similar tone to the Hebrew Prophets, Sura 2 demands, “You enjoin piety on the people and you forget to practice it yourselves when you recite the Scripture.  Have you no sense?” (2:44).

Not surprisingly, hypocrites will be confined to the “lowest depths” of Hell-fire (4:145).

Almost a millennium later, the founders of modern political philosophy like Machiavelli and Hobbes discussed the importance of hypocrisy in politics.  While Hobbes was less supportive of the practice than Machiavelli, he too understood that politics is necessarily a “parade of masks” and full of delusions, precisely because the ruler must find ways of convincing people to accept actions that are not in their interests (even if they are defined as such).

Hypoocrisy and Cleverness

Perhaps the Tao Te Ching describes the problem of hypocrisy best with a simple aphorism, “When cleverness emerges/There is great hypocrisy.”

The meaning of this couplet is quite relevant to the present situation.  When someone moves or departs from the Tao, or “way,” we can talk about it but it is really not there.  In the current context, the moment you start speaking regularly about honor, ethics and morality is probably the moment when they are largely absent (The celebrate seventeenth-century French writer La Rochefoucauld wrote famously that “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue” precisely because it must pretend to follow its ethos while practicing the opposite).

More broadly, the whole idea of counter-insurgency (or “COIN,” as the clever people in the Pentagon have acronymed it) is utterly hypocritical.  It is based, in theory, on “winning hearts and minds” and “separating” civilians from insurgents in a situation where the military practicing it is a belligerent occupier of a territory where a large share and likely majority of the population views it as such (if they supported, or at least were willing to tolerate the presence, then COIN would not be necessary in the first place).

It is clear that a belligerently occupying foreign army cannot win hearts and minds of a population that still has the means and will to fight back, and therefore the whole strategy is doomed from the start.  Certainly President Obama, who's been described as “clever” by most every admirer and critic who discusses him, knows this all too well.  This is no doubt at least one reason why he wasn't willing to commit to the open-ended engagement in Afghanistan preferred by McChrystal.

And yet there is no politically practicable way for any government to withdraw from an occupation until the costs of remaining become so high that the people demand it (thus Israel continues its occupation with no end in sight; the U.S. and Soviets only withdrew from Vietnam and Afghanistan when the price for remaining became unsustainable).  Some justification has to be found for slogging it out, with all the human and financial costs that entails—one thousand dead US soldiers, upwards of $5 billion per month, no one has been able to calculate accurately the numbers for the Afghan people—until the people call for a quick exit regardless of the political costs.

The Plague of Contemporary Politics

And so when our leaders start sounding too clever, when doctrines and strategies seem too well conceived, they likely mask a great deal of hypocrisy by those wielding them, precisely because they are aware of the disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

Today, it seems every politician wears a mask.  The more successful ones have many and can change between them without most people noticing—precisely what the religious texts are most worried about.  Hypocrisy has indeed become the coin of the realm of international politics; it unites seeming enemies in an intricate discourse that allows each to maintain an appearance of integrity by pointing out the hypocrisy of those who attack them.  And as long as everyone is guilty, no one has to change their behavior.

And this is the most troubling aspect of the McChrystal affair and its ostensible resolution.  President Obama's decision to replace the politically maladroit McChrystal with David Petraeus is being applauded in Washington and other Western capitals in good measure because Petraeus is supposedly a more politically adept manager.  But Petraeus's political skills should in fact be a cause for more, rather than less, concern, since his greater the political acumen will, if history is any guide, likely lead to an even greater level of hypocrisy across the board in the prosecution and spinning of the war in Afghanistan (and Pakistan as well).

We may never know why General McChrystal and his aides felt compelled to speak openly and honestly to Rolling Stone.  It might just be that the pressure of so much hypocrisy was too much to bear, or at least to cover up.  Whatever the reason, their words serve as a warning about the realities of the war, and while McChrystal's replacement might be able to manage the conflict publicly more deftly than did he, in the end the realities of war have a way of smashing through even the most carefully crafted distortion, leaving an even bigger disaster in its wake.

HNN Special: Generals Challenging Presidents

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 7/5/2010

Where would you find such an idiot (journalist or not) that
thinks any country doesn't need a military? Are we talking 'bout mentally
retarded folks here?
I'm sorry, but trying to be outrageous
you become ridiculous...

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2010

Well, if they don't hate the military they think we don't need it, which is almost as bad.

But I think many of them do hate it, or they would not publish purloined secret memos and documents which put our troops in danger, and would not dance around for the cameras giving the enemy false hopes, i.e., aid and comfort, for which they should be prosecuted. What about the Hillary crowd, who put the young officers to serving canapes at the White House in their white gloves? (This accounts for much of why the NYTimes, LATimes, Time, Newsweek, WaPo, and liberal TV networks are now in a steady decline).

I think you are mistaken. I think many reporters do hate the US military per se. Not, perhaps, one- on-one and up close, which showed the value of "embedding." But in general our reporters don't know which side they are on.

Arnold Shcherban - 7/4/2010

"Those people", Mr. Hughes, don't hate
US military per se (and you know it, as well as I do), but they do hate what it often does at the command from the US imperial governments, e.g. aggression and war crimes...

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/4/2010

I see Petraeus as the intelligent man's general, not as the politicians general. He was jumped over many who out-ranked him because he had pioneered a better technique in Iraq, and I guess he wrote a manual about it.

Yes, it involved cutting some deals with the enemy, just as they will probably have to do with the Taliban...

The bad generals, in my view, were Garner, Sanchez, Abizaid and Casey. Franks may have been okay. I do not have a high opinion of Gen. Myers or Adm. Mellon, either. In general, I think the joint chiefs are always tied up in a herd mentality... Sanchez was responsible for Abou Ghreb, I think. He probably made the girl prison commander so she could not screw up hot fighting somewhere else. (Just an educated guess). She, and our biggest black eye of the war, was likely a price paid for political correctness and women's equality. (Yes, blame it on the liberals)...

They thought Abizaid had to be right because he spoke the language, and he was just awful, probably the worst. Casey was deadwood.

Nobody knows whether Petraeus can win again in Afghanistan, but cutting away from the vacillating Obama gives everyone a lot better chance. The change is good for our soldiers in the theater, good for the NATO forces on their flanks, good for the Afghan people, good for the Americans at large, and good for the world. It is probably, (shudder), also good for the Democrats.

james joseph butler - 7/2/2010

Lawrence has it occurred to you that the reason why Rolling Stone and McCrystal were a match was the notion that they both see themselves as outsiders who have little patience for convention? McCrystal became a General because of his special forces expertise. He did what Churchill said real men do at night.

Now you say you want the politician's General as your point man to win the war in Afghanistan. Certainly Petraeus has leverage that McCrystal did not, but where does this end? Petraeus gets an additional 20,000 troops and 20 months, do you really think that such marginalia will tip the tides of history and persuade people whose time frames include centuries that my grandparents forgot to join us on the road to progress and faster wifi?

Petraeus is really good but he is still an American pro consul. He'll lose unless he's prepared to meet the Taliban where they were in August 2001.

Tom Billings - 7/1/2010

Joseph, it is obvious you typed before doing your homework. The majority of insurgencies do fail. Long before WW2 the insurgencies against the Germans in SW Africa failed. The contemporary insurgencies against Spain, France and Italy, and Britain in North Africa failed. Insurgencies in 19th century Canada failed. Several insurgencies in the Philippines failed, including those against the Spanish. Together, these are a miniscule percentage of those insurgencies that failed. The Philippine Commonwealth was set up at US insistence with an independence date about 10 years earlier than desired by President Quezon, without the presence of an ongoing insurgency.

Insurgent failures like these are not often mentioned, except by scholars of military history, precisely *because* they failed. They don't send what the history departments see as the right message to students. As to Vietnam, I decline to help develop yet another argument about Vietnam on HHN.

Your ignorance of COIN working in Iraq, using the techniques I outlined and many more, is astounding. Those were spoken of in many places around the blogosphere, often by bloggers engaged in the work themselves, at ground level. Your limitation to insurgencies of the 20th Century is pitiful, because the majority of insurgencies did not happen in the 20th Century.

As to :

"The war on terror is a mirage fought by clueless idealists like yourself who have more in common with 19 year old,360,X-box, Team Blue, Obama - Bush, acolytes, than you know."

This is a standard class bigot sneer, so often visible in many of the academically affected towards those who do not have college degrees. Get over it. Class bigotry today is no prettier than race bigotry was in 1960, when I first ran head-on into it. If those 19 year-olds who volunteer for military service bother you, they often encourage me, since I find a surprising number of them at TEA Parties, out of uniform, of course.

As to "get on the program or else", I was not accepted. Age and Type 1 diabetes bar me. Know that "some 23 year old knows the valley better than someone who has never left it." is irrelevant. It is the people who never left their homes that are complaining about the Taliban in most of Afghanistan. The Talibs today are often Pakistanis, hired or inspired by the salafists with money from Arabia and elsewhere. Few are native to the places they operate in. Where did you get the idea a 23-years old kid with no real training should be sent to do that sort of dangerous COIN job? That calls for field experience and knowledge of the local language. No, not your average 23-year old college grad.

Joseph, you have not studied the conflict. You seem to have not studied war. You have not studied much of anything about what is relevant, or you would not have made the remarks you did.

You *did* acknowledge the need for freedoms of action needed for the productive world-wide networks of industrial society to survive and thrive. For that I can commend you.

It is the direct openly stated threat against those freedoms by the present enemy, and past enemies, that forms the only possible rationale for troops beyond US borders. After all, the productive networks of industrial society will do nothing for us if the rest of the world is cut out of the networks. We cannot be a network alone.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/1/2010

It was widely bruited that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had voted for Obama in 2008. Right there we can see he does not have an iota of brainpower, and this was confirmed by his failure to assume perfidy from the Rolling Stone reporters. He ought to have learned years ago that such people all hate the U.S. military. The wonder is not that he was fired, but that he ever got to attain such a high command in the first place.

Now we have Gen. David Petraeus in full charge of the war, replacing Obama, not just McChrystal. Yes, the war, not just the battlefield. The President can't possibly fire Petraeus without seeing his 30% approval slide to 11% or 12%, and Obama will not dare to "revise" down future requests by Petraeus for men or impedimenta, or second-guess his departure dates, either. He has painted himself into a corner provided only that Petraeus decides to exert his power, and my guess is that he will.

The best part of this is that however the Afghanistan fighting turns out it will be better for the U.S. with Petraeus at the helm than it would have been with anyone else, especially Obama.

james joseph butler - 7/1/2010

"those who are willing to outlast their opponents win, in each valley."
Tom do you really think we could have won the Vietnam War if we'd been; Willing to Outlast? If you do it's because you don't know much about human beings or Vietnam. We lost the Vietnam War because it didn't really matter to us as opposed to the Vietnamese who were fighting a war of independence. Ho Chi Minh told us this long ago.

"The vast majorities of insurgencies don't win." That's you. You're wrong. If "insurgencies" are violent indigenous independence movements in the 20th century; won-loss records: Russia, yup, Stalin and co. did it better. Ireland, that's a win, Philippines, USA USA, it took a really smart guy, waterboarding, and a US departure to win. Algeria, South Africa, Rhodesia, Kenya, the Congo, Central America,Nicaragua, El-Salvador, China, Mao-tse Tung, was more effective than Chiang Kai Shek. Tom, you're wrong, insurgencies win again and again, because anything is better than being ruled by the clueless and foreign. Which is what you and Uncle Sam are.

You're afraid of adding "leverage to the Salafists and Khomeinists" by losing the war on terror in a valley or a beltway. You want "industrial freedoms of actions for people." So do I. You want the State Dept. to conduct censuses in Afghan vallies to determine who should stay and who we should slay. Get on the program or else. Some 23 year old intern knows the valley better than someone who's never left it.

The war on terror is a mirage fought by clueless idealists like yourself who have more in common with 19 year old,360,X-box, Team Blue, Obama - Bush, acolytes, than you know.

"the first decades will have to be guarded by troops from industrial world armies." - T. Billings. Maybe they can ride around in ice cream trucks.

Tom Billings - 7/1/2010


Frankly, it seems more thoughtful about the authors fantasies about COIN than it does about its realities.

This is apparent in the following sentence: "It is clear that a belligerently occupying foreign army cannot win hearts and minds of a population that still has the means and will to fight back, and therefore the whole strategy is doomed from the start."

The first phrases of that sentence assign the role of "belligerently occupying foreign army" to the ISAF. That is simply not true in the vast majority of Afghanistan. It is propaganda. In much of Afghanistan village elders complain about a *lack* of agressiveness on the part of ISAF troops, because they know that when the Taiban win in their valley, they will kill more people than close support strikes ever would.

Those phrases assign all responsibility as well to the Armed Forces. In fact a huge amount of COIN must be done in cooperation with State Department personnel, who too often do everything possible to wiggle out of going to Afghanistan, instead of the salons of European Capitals. Note that a huge amount of credit for success in Iraq should be given to State's Ambassador Croker, who worked in close cooperation with General Petraeus in Iraq. He is now in retirement. It was that Ambassador who ordered State personnel to cooperate with the military in the crucial activities to rebuild local government in Iraq. So far, Holbrooke seems to have little inclination towards this. Maybe Petraeus is enough of a diplomat to change his mind.

The worst part about this article, however, is its assumption that the effort is doomed from the start because politics is involved. *All* military activity is done at the behest of politics. If the ability to win hearts and minds were inherently lacking in COIN, then the majority of insurgencies would win. Instead, the vast majority of insurgencies fail.

If COIN fails in Afghanistan, it will be because present COIN doctrine is not being followed. What is first needed is acceptance of the valley war, where every valley is a different war. It is there that COIN doctrine must be shaped to each valley and its people. Of course, they have to know who belongs in that valley, and who are Taliban hirelings. That means a census of the population by State Department personnel is needed in the valley as a first step in protecting its people.

Once you know who belongs there, it's much easier to identify whoever comes in to act for the Taliban. Alongside the infrastructure building and government building (note, tribal leaders are often as corrupt or moreso than central government people)the patrolling of the valley and its boundaries by first ISAF troops and then Afghan Army troops and finally a competent Afghan National Police must continue. Yes, those institutions require much work to get competent activity.

Only after a local government is established in cooperation with the Kabul government should the troops hand over to the Afghans. Then those troops move to the next valley over the hill, and repeat the process.

War is not witty sayings and philosophy about "clever" men. It is a horribly hard task, in which those who are willing to outlast their opponents win, in each valley.

As to the remarks about Obama agreeing with the author, that will mean sure defeat, because changing the cultures of Afghanistan to accept their people participating in the freedoms of the industrial world will take decades. Unwillingness to do it is acceptance of defeat. The first decades will have to be guarded by troops from industrial world armies.

If Afghanistan once again becomes one of "the places in between", then it will again contribute leverage to the Salafists and Khomeinists who oppose industrial freedoms of action for people. That will cost us far more than this campaign does, in the world-wide war going on through the next decades.

The simple fact is that the Taliban now believe we will just go away if they wait long enough. After July 2011, General Petraeus will have to convince people we will stay till the job is done, both in Washington and the Hindu Kush.

james joseph butler - 6/29/2010

I know it's not saying much but this is the most insightful piece I've read about McCrystal's demise. The City of Bud Lite Lime meets that Rolling Stone is par for the course; Petraeus saves the day, Obama's lunch, and now America can forget about Afghanistan until...

I'm reading "War", Sebastian Junger's latest testosterone fueled boy book. I wish my nephews would put down their joy sticks and read him. Reading about Junger's blue collar heroes what's heartbreaking is how (Is Obama as ignorant as McCrystal, or is McCrystal as ... why can't these really smart people recognize that 9/11 had 0.7% to do with Afghanistan?) ignorant America's,soldiers, politicians, and citizens are. They're a lot like those 12th century Afghans.

As much as I 100% believe in America's foreign policy hypocrisy, I think,like the Crusades, the true believers out there far out number the cynical and self-interested. McCrystal crash landed because he believed and couldn't handle it anymore. That's where the rest of America is headed eventually.

Until the next 9/11 or Times Square, or... and then America's blood lust will be just as ordinary as Junger's twenty year olds.