Jim Sleeper: Conservatives See McChrystal's Folly; Neo-Cons Can't

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale University.]

My father learned about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's kind of contempt for the suits in Washington on the night of April 12, 1945, when he awakened his commanding officer with news that Franklin D. Roosevelt was dead. As the bulletin reached HQ at the 277th Battalion of the U.S. Army Combat Engineers in Holsterhausen, Germany, the war was still very much on; the Wehrmacht had recently tried to shell a bridge the combat engineers had built across the Rhine. My Dad, 26, thought that his commanding officer, Major. E.O. Swickward, Jr would want to know that his Commander in Chief had changed.

"I don't give a flying f--- who the president is," growled Swickward from his bed, thereby reminding my father that the army is a grinding, clanking, bloody machine that, once in motion on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis, serves gods of war not resident in Washington.

What makes McChrystal dangerous isn't that he feels what Swickward did; it's that he thinks he's a god of war (and, in Rolling Stone, a rock star.) Conservatives and liberals get this. Neo-conservatives cannot.

"President Obama would be entirely justified in firing McChrystal," writes National Review's chief Washington corresponding Byron York. "Obama is a deeply flawed commander-in-chief..., but he is the commander-in-chief. He should have a general who will carry out his policies without public complaint until the voters can decide to change those policies."

York has no more illusions than my father did after April 12, 1945, about the "nature of relations between the military and the civilian leadership."York quotes a former military man's observation that "You can find examples of this going back to the founding of the republic." Still, York's source adds, "it is very disturbing that he would have such disdain for the civilian leadership."

Open disdain. Let McChrystal say what he wants to his staff, as Swickward did to my Dad. But this is the second time McChrystal has gotten word to the public that he thinks he's got it all. So what if Barack Obama went to Harvard? McChrystal did, too, to a "soft power" program at the Kennedy School, and he thinks he's got both Washington and Kandahar covered.

York and other serious conservatives can distinguish between their own disdain for Obama's leadership and their commitment to the American republic.They understand the dangers of compromising civilian leadership of the military. But Commentary magazine reminds us that neo-conservatives don't get what's at stake for the republic in moves like McChrystal's because, like their Eastern European Stalinist intellectual and political forebears of the 1930s, they haven't a republican bone in their preternaturally insecure (and therefore militaristic, flag-waving) bodies.

Commentary's first, and therefore most telling, reaction to McChrystal's folly comes from someone named Jennifer Rubin, who tries to spin and twist the developments to wring out as much anti-Obama sentiment as she can:

"Far from being evidence of McChrystal's insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration's mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama's own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal's faults."

Rubin, being un-American (I assume that she was born and brought up here) has no republican honor, and, of course, she knows nothing about the military. But she knows what she wants everyone to get from the McChrystal incident, because she is a neo-conservative, and therefore a bombastic un-American. Given the army's situation in Afghanistan at the moment, I don't know if McChrystal should be fired, but I do know that terminally creepy neo-conservatives, who've given us doe-eyed raptures over McChrystal, should be disgraced and sidelined by the conservative movement.

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