Understand, I’m not trying to equate the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal with the punishment of Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano. There are light years of historical importance between the two. McChrystal’s dismissal affects the quality and future of hundreds of thousands of western, southern and central Asian, and American, lives. Zambrano’s current, and subsequent, punishment affects only the extraordinarily insular, albeit profitable, world of the sports industry. How the Cubs are doing against other baseball franchises is a negligible concern compared to the political, economic and moral stability of the existing populations of almost half a continent.
And yet I can’t help but notice parallels in how the overall tenor of each result has been affected, and arguably decided, by media and marketing concerns. Both McChrystal and Zambrano are portrayed as genuinely talented, exceptional representatives of their fields who have veered wildly off course. And each still enjoy, to varying degrees, surprisingly vociferous defenders.
I posted, earlier, a defense of Zambrano by local blogger ‘cubbiejulie,’ who, perhaps rightly, blames the Cub organization as a whole for Zambrano’s, to her mind, righteous, blow-up. If I may expand on her comments, she sees Zambrano as a fiery and immensely talented pitcher who hasn’t been well-served by a coaching staff and/or organization who bear responsibility for turning a live arm with competitive will into a winning professional pitcher. When you think of coaching successes like Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone, or Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan, or Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyer, you see exemplary professionals who can work with unvarnished raw talent and create single-minded winners consistently, within the larger team structure. And, while these happy pairings tend to be far more the exception than the rule, they nonetheless establish a standard that all other clubs should aspire to.
But I certainly understand the other side, too. How many, many, many times have we seen an inning collapse on Zambrano – consecutive hits, consecutive walks, two-and-three run homers by the opposition, followed by Carlos drilling the next batter in the ribs, or throwing wildly to a base, having no hope of an out, and watching the ball sail into the outfield?
Opinion leans heavily on the proposition that Zambrano will never grow up. That until he moderates his passions, and harnesses that cannon of a right arm, he’s more trouble than he’s worth.
But I absolutely defend, as well, the view that Zambrano’s behavior is a symptom, not the disease. Some of my least favorite professional athletes on the planet – Roger Clemons, Rasheed Wallace, Bill Romanowski, to name a few – were far more praised than vilified for misguided displays of their ‘passions’ simply because their teams won consistently. When you’re team is losing and you blow up, you’re selfish. When you’re team is winning and you throw 95 mph fastballs at batter’s heads, or scream at referees, or blindside receivers, you’re a passionate competitor.
Now let’s make the awkward, but telling, transition to the war in Afghanistan. Our military travails in Iraq seem to be leveling out into something we can call success – a spotty but seemingly stable Iraqi governing establishment, coupled with a reduction in violence among internal political and religious factions. Much of this success is credited to the exceptional ‘coaching’ teamwork of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. Things haven’t gone so swimmingly for Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his Afghan counterpart, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
In November 2009, Eikenberry published an assessment of the U.S.’s progress in Afghanistan. Among his comments: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner” – “We overestimate the ability of Afghan forces to take over” – “We underestimate how long it will take to restore or establish civilian government” – “I now propose that the White House commission a deliberate process to lay out the range of strategic options on Afghanistan and Pakistan, broadening the analysis beyond military counterinsurgency doctrine.”
It’s no secret that McChrystal, who’s all about counterinsurgency, felt like he’d just had his toes stepped on. And that, despite having his request for more troops granted, he became increasingly cynical towards the administration’s handling of the conflict. But McChrystal, in my view, is but one talented and passionate part of the military and diplomatic ‘team’ It’s up to Obama, to Biden, to Clinton, to Gates, and civilian others, to rein in McChrystal, and Eikenberry, and Richard Holbrooke, etc., and use their diverse talents within a unified larger team strategy. The portrayal of McChrystal and his charges as loose cannons tends to dilute the larger issues. McChrystal had to go NOT because anything he or his cadre expressed wasn’t true – he had to go because the White House got shown up.
The succession of Petraeus is widely praised, because Petraeus’ tenure in Iraq is seen as a winning effort. Never mind that our ‘success’ in Iraq is built on two dubious strategies – the outright bribing of the Sunnis, who were being cowed by the shameless genocidal efforts of the Shia militias – and the co-option of Col. H.R. McMaster’s brilliant “clear, hold and build” strategy by Petraeus and Condi Rice. The overall management of the Iraqi conflict by the Bush administration, especially Rumsfeld’s arrogant bungling and Cheney’s chicken-hawk opportunism, was discouraging, but you have to give Rice, Gates and Petraeus grudging credit for making lemonade out of the Bush administration’s lemons. And, to Crocker’s credit, Jamal Talabani and Nouri al-Maliki, obvious faults notwithstanding, are far more reliable ‘strategic partners’ than Hamid Karzai will ever be.
Rice, Gates and Petraeus have delivered more than their fair share of fastballs to opposing ribs, but they’re seen as winners. McChrystal, in ‘screaming at the refs’ and sowing discord in the ‘clubhouse’, wasn’t reprimanded until bad P.R. from the outside (the Rolling Stone article) forced the White House’s hand. I would argue that Eikenberry’s memo was just as damning, and arguably just as cynical, but, fortuitously, he chose a method that isn’t seen as ‘showing up’ management.
I suspect Carlos Zambrano’s view of his Cubs team, from the bullpen, in the coming days, won’t look markedly dissimilar to Stanley McChrystal’s view of our war in Afghanistan, from the Pentagon doghouse. I gave them what they wanted from me. Did it all go wrong because of my priorities, or theirs? Are we scapegoats, or victims? Are we the disease, or the symptoms?
Let me close with what I thought was a terrific defense of McChrystal by his Afghan aide-de-camp in today’s NYT:
“After nine long years of war, General McChrystal once again revived that feeling of hope in Afghans. He made the war about protecting the people and gave us the strength to fight. The general has always been a man of his word and quickly earned our absolute respect. He became a hero to us. In a country with a long history of great men, he became one of them. He became one of us.
“General McChrystal represents, to me, what is best about Americans. He is strong and determined but also gracious, courteous and compassionate in every circumstance and situation. When he would walk in the markets or visit our villages he would listen to Afghans and respect their traditions and customs. When speaking with young soldiers he would make them so proud of their duty.
“Those of us who had the highest privilege to work on his staff were given great responsibility, and great trust. He was especially generous with his trust.
“I never had the opportunity to say goodbye to General McChrystal. I hope he will return when there is peace in Afghanistan, because he will be the father of that peace.”