General Stanley McChrystal kicked off the Foreign Affairs Symposium last night. In his speech, the four-star general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan focused on the importance of understanding differing national perspectives and the significance of international relationships. He spoke at length about the U.S.-Iranian relationship and argued that the events of the past 70 years can be retold differently from both sides. Ignoring one side’s perspective, he concluded, is a recipe for disaster.
The editorial board salutes General McChrystal for his cogent and candid analysis of foreign affairs. His speech was largely devoid of ideological biases and transcended political lines. Most importantly, his speech did not contain the talking points of American exceptionalism or the all too common unwillingness to find fault with American actions overseas. At more than one point in his speech, McChrystal exhibited his readiness to criticize American foreign policy and military strategy, admitting that some tactics he and other generals pursued were entirely one-sided and failed to account for the “human element” on the ground. Instead of blindly praising America’s forays in distant lands, McChrystal told stories of military incompetence in Afghanistan which created violence instead of quelling it. Even with the best intentions, he admitted, the American military cannot defuse disputes by simply flexing its muscle.
The willingness of a four-star general to criticize something that’s often regarded as a sacred cow among military elites is incredibly important, especially here on a college campus. For students, the University is supposed to shake off old ideas and reconfigure once-rigid ideological molds. In the realm of American foreign policy and military intervention, critical analysis is often offered by think tanks and third-parties, away from the action and far from the front lines. To this end, a four-star general’s critiques of his own military’s actions carries much more credence. For students learning to question and to criticize, General McChrystal provided the perfect lesson.
Other military commanders would do well to heed McChrystal’s advice. It’s time for America’s top brass to stop viewing the world from a single lens — from the perspective that America is the beacon of freedom and democracy, and is always just in her cause to establish freedom and democracy abroad. Imposing plans thought up behind closed doors in Pentagon conference rooms is no way to conduct a war. If anything can be learned from the past decade and from McChrystal’s speech, it’s that America isn’t always right.