Printing Gossip As News
Robert Gates has now added his opinion to the debate over the public comments of Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Afghanistan:
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Monday that President Obama's advisors should keep their guidance private, in effect admonishing the top commander in Afghanistan for publicly advocating an approach requiring more troops even as the White House reassesses its strategy.
The comment by Gates came a day after Obama's national security advisor, James L. Jones, said that military commanders should convey their advice through the chain of command -- a reaction to Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's public statements in support of his troop-intensive strategy for stabilizing Afghanistan.
The exchanges suggested some disarray in the Obama administration's attempts to forge a new policy on Afghanistan and underscored wide differences among top officials over the correct approach.
I don't know that the comments suggested anything but the plain fact that the media treats generals like heroes whose pronouncements should never be questioned, unnecessarily distorting policy debates about foreign policy. News outlets are never going to be good at figuring this out because they try very hard not to understand the impact they have on political debates. But simply put, McChrystal makes a public statement for more troops, and the narrative immediately becomes "will the President go against the advice of his generals? How COULD he?" So a policy of not allowing that narrative to form seems perfectly reasonable, especially because generals have a narrow focus on their own area of responsibility and are not supposed to have a big-picture approach, and furthermore because they have a very explicit chain of command for recommendations of this types. McChrystal probably knows how this works and is using the system to his advantage, but his is not the first sin. It's a media failure to properly contextualize in favor of a yen to sensationalize.
Nancy Pelosi parroted Gates last night, so it's a full-on talking point, but again, her target is McChrystal instead of the media process that turns McChrystal into a deity. That's probably because it's impossible to get the media to understand their personal failure, so you have to shut down the debate entirely. And now, of course, the gossip-mongers on cable news are headlining: "Gates and Pelosi SLAM McChrystal," turning it into a personality-based he-said/she-said, when if they were the least bit responsible about handling public comments from leaders of the military this wouldn't even be a problem.
...And Americans have subconsciously figured out how this all ends: it doesn't. Because we cannot have a serious debate on anything in this country without it devolving into bitchy gossip and meta-critiques of how things "play" politically, tough decisions just don't get made. And so 68%, in this poll, said America will not win or lose the war in Afghanistan; it will just go on without resolution.
Tragically, people have actually gotten USED to this outcome.