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There are three issues at play in the storm swirling around Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which was spawned by the recent article in Rolling Stone.
The first issue is the content of what McChrystal said—and what it says about the mission in Afghanistan.
Among other things, McChrystal belittled Vice President Joe Biden. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” the magazine quotes McChrystal saying with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
These remarks about Biden, as the magazine recalls, come on the heels of McChrystal’s dismissive response to Biden’s 2009 proposals for Afghanistan. After he called Biden’s plan “shortsighted,” the article reminds readers, McChrystal received “a smack-down from the president himself.”
McChrystal is depicted as having little more than contempt for Richard Holbrooke, a special envoy for the Afghan theater. He swats at Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s leaked memos, which, in McChrystal’s view, cover the ambassador’s “flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
One of McChrystal’s aides is quoted as calling National Security Advisor James Jones a “clown…stuck in 1985.” Other aides criticize “politicians like McCain and Kerry” for what amounts to drive-by foreign policy.
At one point, McChrystal concedes, “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem.”
Indeed, that is the problem. The general is a human being under enormous stress, and he said things and implied things that he simply shouldn’t have said or implied. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a right to think them, but he definitely shouldn’t say them, especially not in the presence of the press. He’s a smart man, and he knows that Adm. Fox Fallon was felled by an article not unlike this one—an article that captured the admiral speaking his mind in a way that would be embarrassing to his bosses and to him.
Most of us are guilty of this very same thing: blowing off steam about our coworkers or clients or customers or bosses. The difference is Gen. McChrystal’s boss is the commander-in-chief. His coworkers are ambassadors and presidential advisors. And he wasn’t caught whispering near the water cooler. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it, the general “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.”
Whether that warrants him being relieved of command—and whether that’s in the best interests of the mission—is another matter. (At press time, McChrystal had reportedly offered his resignation to President Obama, which the president had not yet accepted.) To be sure, this is not on par with MacArthur’s direct challenge to Truman’s authority and, arguably, to the entire system of civilian control over the military.
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