I gave a guest lecture on U.S. grand strategy at the Army War College yesterday, and got some terrific questions and comments from the officers attending the course. One of the most intriguing questions was whether withdrawal from Afghanistan would have divisive effects here at home, including a backlash against the U.S. military and the kind of wrenching experience that the United States experienced after Vietnam.
I said that this was certainly a possibility, but also not inevitable, and that a lot depended on how U.S. elites and commentators dealt with that situation were it in fact to occur. I also reminded the soldiers that defeat in Vietnam was followed by a triumphant victory in the Cold War, a mere fourteen years after Saigon fell. The lesson is that a single setback need not have catastrophic or lasting consequences, if the United States retains the core elements of national power and deploy them wisely going forward.
I thought of that exchange this morning, when I read the already-infamous Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which contains a number of indiscreet comments about the war in Afghanistan and the way that various members of Obama administration are handling it.
Whatever else it might mean, this article is yet another sign that the war is not going well, and the article itself paints a rather grim picture of the situation. Most of the commentary I've seen is focusing on whether McChrystal will or should be asked to resign, but I think the real question is what this tells us about the state of the war itself. When civilian leaders or uniformed commanders (or their aides) start taking pot shots at each other in public, it tells you that they are getting frustrated and that they are looking to pin the blame for failure on someone else. You would certainly not expect to see this sort of article to appear if the campaign was going swimmingly.
McChrystal has already expressed regret for his remarks, but he's still been summoned to the White House for a one-on-one with his commander-in-chief. I don't know if he'll keep his job or not, but this sort of distraction can't be good for either Obama or the war effort. Whatever happens to McChrystal, the real question remains unresolved: What the heck are we doing in Afghanistan, and is an open-ended war there in the U.S. national interest?
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.