One of the greatest challenges America faces at the moment is our inability to tell the difference between what makes news and what really matters.
Not only is this week's "big story" in Washington -- the Rolling Stone-assisted career suicide of General Stanley McChrystal -- not actually an important story, it's not even the most important national security story of the week. It's not even the most important story about a key general quitting this administration at a vital moment in a badly bungled struggle.
In fact, in the botched coverage of the McChrystal hullaballoo I see not just one but six degrees of wrong.
- First, we have had most of the media coverage devoted to the soap opera elements of this story. The President vs. His Hand-picked Battlefield Commander. The inviolability of the chain of command vs. McChrystal's perverse compulsion to bare his soul in a magazine whose cover features Lady Gaga doing something similar while wielding a couple of deadly weapons in a manner not recommended in any army training manual. Problem is, of course, this is superficial personality stuff that pales in comparison to the real story about Afghanistan.
- That real story was nailed in a particularly incisive piece by Tom Friedman in yesterday's New York Times in which he smartly sidestepped the hubbub that was mesmerizing the cablerati and pointed out that it doesn't really matter who is in command of our Afghan folly, our "only real choices are lose early, lose late, lose big or lose small." If McChrystal and literally every other senior official involved in the Afghan effort feels making significant progress will take more time (a decade more) and money (hundreds of billions more) than the American people or the President or the Congress are willing to spend then the issue is not who is commanding on the ground but when they are going to supervise our ignominious withdrawal...and when and how the bad guys will capitalize on that.
- Of course, in terms of our national security interests in the Middle East, what happens in Afghanistan is trumped by what is happens in Pakistan... and that in turn could well be soon trumped by the consequences of Iran's run at being a nuclear power. Thus shifting Petraeus from CENTCOM to Afghanistan reflects what could be seen in retrospect as a politically motivated strategic misstep - focusing on covering the president's behind on a signature initiative instead of addressing more significant threats. And the even bigger problem with the Middle East is our dependence on the region's oil ... and here we have this amazing reality that there is an oil-related crisis in this country that could be driving real moves toward reform and all we are getting are half-hearted, half-steps in the direction of the new energy policy we desperately need.
- As big as the story of our political leadership's unwillingness to mount a credible offensive on the energy front is, even that story of the week is not as significant in terms of our national security as our continuing unwillingness to address the debt bomb that lies ticking ominously at the foundation of our economy. For this reason the really important resignation of the week was not McChrystal, it was that of budget chief Peter Orszag. In speaking to senior administration economic officials, whatever the official story is there seems to be a sense that at least in part the OMB chief is heading for the exit because he worries that the efforts to confront the deficit will be postponed or sub-optimal.
- They'll find someone to run OMB, naturally. It's a little worrisome that the choices currently being bruited about are talented folks but not specialists in getting things done on Capitol Hill, which is where the real heavy lifting will be needed. Proof of that - and of the utter gutless, visionlessness of the Congressional leadership -- came this week as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer announced that they would not seek a budget via traditional channels this year, suggesting a mid-term election year dodge to avoid having to address the real issues associated with starting to reduce the threats to America's future represented by big deficits and even bigger "off balance sheet" and "phantom balance sheet" real and likely obligations. (See my FT piece last week on this phenomenon - and in the last category consider that among other things the Federal government may soon find itself in the position of having to bail out public pension funds that are currently underfunded to the tune of something like a trillion dollars. Just to pick one particularly worrisome illustration as to why this problem is bigger than just the very very big federal deficit.)
- And if you thought that expecting politicians to actually lead themselves was too much to ask then all you had to do this week was to look to the United Kingdom where the fledgling government of David Cameron had the genuine political courage to introduce a budget ... after just weeks in office and with a coalition government ... that proposed 25 percent cuts in British public spending. I was no fan of Cameron and I am still a skeptic ... but this was a courageous political move that should be seen by Americans as a sign both of what is possible and what will be required of whoever genuinely cares about American leadership and national security.
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