What do General Stanley McChrystal, Commander in Chief of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Patrice Evra, captain of the French World Cup team, have in common? Both were publicly critical of the chain of command.
Evra, with several of his colleagues, was dropped from the final match of France’s disastrous World Cup campaign. McChrystal will surely be gone within a couple of days of his return to Washington. Naturally you could argue that the demise of McChrystal, if it happens, will be far more significant in global terms.
Yet for many people in France, the World Cup disaster symbolises a wider malaise. That’s certainly the opinion of a colleague who stayed with me for the last week. He believes that France has lost its national pride, and is in a crisis of confidence. France’s structural problems, he maintains, are far deeper that those of the UK and other Euorpean countries that are currently tightening their belts. Inflexible employment practices, rigidly hierarchical management structures and declining national institutions such as the health service are all contributing to the national gloom.
If President Sarkozy attempts the kind of cuts that George Osborne has just introduced in the United Kingdom, it will be back to the barricades in time-honoured French fashion. My friend’s view of the President himself, as Sarkozy arrived in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of De Gaulle’s call to arms after the defeat of France in World War II, is not complimentary, to say the least.
In Afghanistan, whatever you think of McChrystal’s indiscretions, it seems that the culture of what Americans would call “ass-covering” is alive and well, exemplified by the behaviour of Ambassador Eikenberry’s alleged positioning of himself to avoid any blame in the event that the current strategy turns bad. It takes more than a reforming president to cure the deeply ingrained tendancy shared by politicians the world over to run for cover when the whiff of blame starts drifting towards them.
Evra’s complaint was the perceived incompetence of team manager Raymond Domenech. McChrystal and his aides turned their guns on a raft of advisors in the White House.
The difference between Evra’s and McChrystal’s situation is that Evra and his team face almost universal contempt in a nation which believes that the episode epitomises the loss of “honneur”. Whereas McChrystal will enjoy much sympathy in America, particularly among the military, where he is highly respected, and among those who will take any opportunity to discredit the President and his team.
Ironically, among the anti-Obama faction are many patriotic Americans who in any other circumstances would regard the breaking of ranks at such a critical time with horror. But such is the polarised opinion about Obama, his opponents will seize this chance to further degrade his standing, and swallow their principles of respect for the chain of command.
That’s politics. Both will bear the scars of recent events. But Patrice Evra will return to Manchester United and eventually retire a very wealthy man. Stanley McChrystal will retire on a generous military pension, and no doubt make a fortune on the lecture circuit.
The price of breaking ranks will be wounded pride. For the people of France, and much more for the benighted Afghans, the agony will continue.