I’m still reading Dexter Filkins’ New York Times Magazine profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal but I’m hung up on this quote:
In the spring of 2006, Iraq seemed lost. The dead were piling up. The society was disintegrating. One possible conclusion was that it was time for the United States to cut its losses in a country that it never truly understood. But the American military believed it had found a strategy that worked, and it hung in there, and it finally turned the tide.
“One of the big take-aways from Iraq was that you have to not lose confidence in what you are doing,” McChrystal said. “We were able to go to the edge of the abyss without losing hope.”
I mean, it was shortly after this time that the strategy changed, from one that emphasized the training of Iraqi forces to one that emphasized protecting the population. I don’t have any idea of the context to which McChrystal was specifically referring. And I have no interest in despairing. But this is a virtuous quality that can be dangerous. We should lose confidence in what we’re doing if it looks like it’s not doing what we thought it would. It’s a thin line between fidelity and faith. McChrystal, from everything I’ve seen, including this article so far, is perceptive enough to calibrate that very very very fine and elusive boundary. But, my God, that’s exactly the sort of quote that worries me, and what gives me confidence in the seemingly-vacillating decision to reassess strategy at the White House.
Update: And sure enough, McChrystal has put himself on a clock to check himself when it comes to that confidence issue:
When the briefing was finished, McChrystal looked around the room. “Gentlemen, I am coming into this job with 12 months to show demonstrable progress here — and 24 months to have a decisive impact,” he said. “That’s how long we have to convince the Taliban, the Afghan people and the American people that we’re going to be successful. In 24 months, it has to be obvious that we have the clear upper hand and that things are moving in the right direction. That’s not a choice. That’s a reality.”
But who will judge whether we have indeed shown “demonstrable progress” or have had a “decisive impact”?