In the Arena

A Sin of Omission

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It occurs to me that I had a lot to say about David Petraeus here this morning, a fair amount to say about Richard Holbrooke and very little to say about Karl Eikenberry, except that his relationship with Karzai doesn’t seem to be very good. Of course, that may not be a bad thing. Karzai is a disaster. But diplomacy is diplomacy and it is only fair to point out that the reason why Eikenberry’s relationship with Dr. K hasn’t been terrific is that Eikenberry told the truth about Karzai in a famous memo, leaked earlier this year, in which the Ambassador said the Afghan leader was an unreliable ally. I’ll say! Despite this outrageous commission of candor, Eikenberry has worked hard to maintain a civil association with Karzai. They meet frequently and discuss a range of topics. Eikenberry flew to Washington with Karzai for the last US-Afghan summit. (Can you call these events summits? They’re more like mole-hills.)

I’ve gotten to know Eikenberry over the past five years and he is a deeply thoughtful and decent man. He and his wife, Ching, work endless hours, out in the countryside, meeting with Afghans, trying to ramp up the economic and social programs that are essential for this mission’s success. His passion for this work is in significant contrast to some of his predecessors. And yet, in the shorthand of journalism, the two things the Ambassador is best known for are: the candid memo and his disagreements with Stanley McChrystal. That’s not fair. He works his heart out for our country, and for the future of Afghanistan.

In fact, let me expand the thought a bit after this painful week: I know journalists are supposed to enjoy contretemps like the firing of Stanley McChrystal. It’s news. And better still, it’s the sort of news that involves…gossip, as opposed to policy, which is just too damn complicated and boring for too many of my colleagues. But I’ve gotten to know all of the players here, some quite well. They are extraordinary people, especially the matching sets from the State Department and the Pentagon: the diplomats Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke; the generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus. They have worked themselves to the point of exhaustion–not for nothing did Petraeus faint at the Armed Services Committee hearing–on an issue that may not have an answer. I can understand why they might get testy with each other at times, and make foolish mistakes like the one that cost McChrystal his job. I admire all four as much as any men I’ve met in 40 years of journalism–not just for the quality of their minds and hearts, but for the relentlessness of their service.

It seems to me that those of us sitting on the sidelines have perfected the art of schadenfreude in this era when every human tragedy can easily be mistaken for a television show. But I find myself feeling depressed by what happened this week. I can’t stand the cheap cynicism, or the political point-scoring, that I hear from too many commentators. War is not the South Carolina primary. The losers die; even the winners are often shattered forever.  We have children, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, risking their lives in this effort; Afghans suffer unspeakable tragedies, far more often and brutally at the hands of the Taliban than by us, every day. I haven’t agreed with every decision that Eikenberry, Holbrooke, McChrystal and Petraeus have made, but that’s not nearly so important, in my mind, as the respect and gratitude I feel for all four. The work they do, the sacrifices they make, should be celebrated by all of us–especially after a wrenching week like this one.

And with that, I’m going to do something these four don’t do very often and probably should do more to preserve their sanity: I’m heading to the beach. See you in a week or two.

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