General McChrystal and Public Diplomacy

General McChrystal is now history, unless he goes on a campaign to get overweight American kids to eat, as he apparently does, only one meal a day, which may be welcomed by Michelle Obama but not the US food industry. Whatever.

I would suggest, however, that the jogging-infatuated General, now of a certain age and in retirement, go for a vacation to Tuscany, accompanied by his wife of many years, and have a nice spaghetti dinner with a good bottle of wine. If only to make up for all these many missed meals.

But -- I must get serious -- here are belated thoughts about the General and his "guys" about their relation with the media -- and commitment to a stupid, unwinnable war -- from a public diplomacy perspective. As I said, the General is now retired, for saying naughty, naughty things about the persons he was expected to respect in his service to the Republic (now called, thanks to George W. Bush, the "homeland"):

1. McChrystal and his staff, when they "openly" dissed just about everybody in the Obama administration, didn't know how to deal with the press in an adult way: their "public affairs" gang couldn't shoot straight. Sure, in our "democracy," the media must be kept accurately and honestly informed, but that doesn't mean reporters must treated on "he's my good buddy, I can tell him everything" basis, which evidently was the case with the Rolling Stone reporter and the McChrystal staff, the reporter who "exposed" his buddies and their boss so mercilessly.

From my twenty-year-plus Foreign Service officer (FSO) experience (for what it's worth), as a "public diplomacy" member of US missions overseas who often dealt with media, both American and foreign, I learned that competent journalists respect (and actually listen to) spokespersons who keep a professional distance between their (the spokespersons') work and themselves, as such distance underscores the fact that the spokesperson realizes that he can separate the official from the personal.

2. The RS article suggests that the McChrystal "Team America" was living in its own, own, very own little world. Sure, the "team" was fighting a war (which does, granted, mean a certain sad involvement in reality on its part), but the team's comments indicated, at least to me, that its members saw themselves in terms of "us" ("us" being Special Operations living in a bubble of its own macho making) vs. "them" -- "them" being, ironically enough, not so much the "insurgents" as other (wimpish) members of the USG, supposedly superiors and colleagues.

3. The Pentagon has gotten so huge and overextended that its right hand doesn't know what its left hand is doing. It's an apple that looks quite shiny on the outside (boy, those aircraft carriers sure look great on photographs, as do well-pressed military uniforms).

But inside the organization there's a rot of confusion, turf wars, indecision, waste, duplication, and simple idiocy. Our (yes, we, the American taxpayer) money is thrown away in incredible ways, all this in the name of "keeping the homeland safe." (I won't get into the military-industrial complex debate). We are not only militarily bloated (we simply can't afford, we as a declining economic power, mind-boggling expenditures on wars and bases unless we want to be the next collapsing empire, be it Rome or the USSR). We are also militarily totally confused, with too much taxpayer funds made available for often senseless military initiatives, about which the American people are seldom consulted (AFRICOM comes to mind). Moreover, and perhaps more important, America is increasingly perceived overseas as wearing combat boots rather than projecting new ideas and providing innovative products. This view about America-as-an-aged-centurion

fighting against social and political change, held among foreigners, including the young, is not in our long term economic and political interests.

4. I admire our men and women in the military. I have had many intellectually stimulating exchanges with members of our armed forces, in academe and elsewhere, from which I learned a great deal. Overseas, as an FSO, I thought our military attaches were exemplary representatives of our country, well informed and sensitive to local public opinion.

However, the most important lesson for me, as a civilian, regarding the McChrystal fiasco -- aside from how badly it was handled from a strictly "how to deal with the press" professional perspective -- is that we, Americans and our government, are engaged in a senseless, ruinous war -- a war unpopular throughout the world -- in Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires, that no one, in or out of the administration, really knows why we are fighting.

Whenever I hear a military official say that we're fighting "the bad guys," I want to ask: But who the hell are the "bad guys"? Please, tell me, specifically, who are they?

For McChrystal and his boys, it seems, the bad guys were everyone but themselves.

Such is the lesson of the eminently forgettable McChrystal episode.

image from