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 – the man responsible for finding and killing Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and helping turn Iraq back from the brink – somehow did not understand that you cannot toss profanity-laden insults at the civilian chain of command and continue to run their war?
Many commentators have suggested that 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 politicised, right-wing military – a 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.
Others argue that unlike his successor, David Petraeus, who is famous for encouraging divergent points of view, McChrystal’s special ops background and close knit circle of aides made him dismissive of views that did not fully support his own.
And even though Obama approved the now nine-month-old troop surge, the president’s unwillingness to commit to an open-ended engagement in Afghanistan left McChrystal and his team afraid that the timetable given was insufficient to succeed in the core mission of their counterinsurgency strategy: to win over the local population by defending important population centres and limiting civilian casualties and to bolster support for the Afghan government and to create the infrastructure necessary for a state 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 US occupation.
All these hypotheses certainly have their merits, but there is likely an even deeper reason 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.
This situation produced a level of cognitive dissonance which became so corrosive that those at the centre 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.
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 commanders to “establish and maintain the proper ethical climate of their organisations” – one based on the “inextricable link” between honour 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 Hamid Karzai, the embattled Afghan president, whose government is so racked by 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, honour and morality, and the messy – and in Afghanistan often bloody – business of politics.
In fact, politics has been described as little more than “organised 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 Quran, 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 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. The theme is picked up in the New Testament and is one of the behaviours 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.
Not surprisingly, hypocrisy (roughly translated as “nifaq” in Arabic) is also a major theme in the Quran, where it is 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”.
Almost a millennium later, the founders of modern political philosophy like Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas 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”, precisely because the ruler must find ways of convincing people to accept actions that are not in their interests.
Hypocrisy 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 honour, ethics and morality is probably the moment when they are largely absent.
The celebrated 17th century French writer François de La Rochefoucauld similarly wrote 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 the majority of the population most likely view it as such. After all, if they supported or were at least willing to tolerate the presence, COIN would not be necessary.
It is clear that a belligerently occupying foreign army cannot win the hearts and minds of a population that still has the means and will to fight back. The whole strategy is, therefore, doomed from the start. Obama knows this and this no doubt partly explains why he was unwilling to commit to the open-ended engagement 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. Some justification has to be found for slogging it out, with all the human and financial costs that entails, until the people call for a quick exit regardless of the political costs.
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 that every politician wears a mask. The more successful ones have many and can change between them without most people noticing.
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 behaviour.
And this is the most troubling aspect of the McChrystal affair and its ostensible resolution. Obama’s decision to replace the politically maladroit McChrystal with Petraeus is being applauded in Washington and other Western capitals in good measure because Petraeus is supposedly a more politically adept manager. But Petraeus’ political skills should be a cause for more rather than less concern. His greater 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.
We may never know why 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.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.