General McChrystal and the Wages of Hypocrisy

06/28/2010 01:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Levine Author; Professor, Middle Eastern History, UC Irvine & Center for MES, Lund University

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 21st century counterinsurgency and black ops, the man responsible for rewriting the army's counterinsurgency 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 Rolling Stone 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 not merely 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 Counterinsurgency 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 commenders "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 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 Plato arguing in The Apology 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 its 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 17th century French writer La Rochefoucauld similar 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 counterinsurgency (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--1,000 dead U.S. 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 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.