Simmer down

As doutbless everyone knows, General Stanley A. McChrystal, COMISAF, is in hot water over a Rolling Stone article in which he and his staff are breathlessly reported to have mocked Constitutional officer-holders, leading many commentators of greater and lesser stature to speculate that he had denigrated the majesty of the Presidential office, violated the UCMJ, kicked puppies and stolen candy from babies.

I have no particular love nor hatred for the general, but I do hate to see military figures lynched on specious grounds.

You can read the article for yourself; I’ll excerpt the most damning things directly attributed to General McChrystal here.  First, he is unhappy about being recommended into a job for which the policymaking principals do not appear to support his methods:

Last fall, with his top general calling for more troops, Obama launched a three-month review to re-evaluate the strategy in Afghanistan. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal tells me in one of several lengthy interviews. “I was selling an unsellable position.” For the general, it was a crash course in Beltway politics – a battle that pitted him against experienced Washington insiders like Vice President Biden, who argued that a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan would plunge America into a military quagmire without weakening international terrorist networks.

— Hastings, Michael.  “The Runaway General.” Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010.

Not exactly damning stuff.  The worst thing McChrystal does in the entire article is imagine waving off a question from the vice president at a Paris dinner party, regarding a prior disagreement with the VP about strategy.

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

So all of the hand-waving we see in the press and electronic media is really predicated on those two instances.  Yes, there are plenty of worse things said in that article, but none of them can be attributed directly to General McChrystal.  They are instead attributed to his staff.  Broadly speaking a commander is responsible for the conduct of his subordinates, yes, but if a lesser rank commits treason or murder, the commander is not automatically guilty of same.  His offence is most likely a failure of command—whether that is failure to provide sufficient discipline and leadership, or a failure to recognise a dangerously corrosive situation and take steps to remedy it.

Now, allowing one’s staff to mock the great officers of state and speak impertinently about State Department officials in the AOR is not fine and dandy, either.  At the very least General McChrystal should have rebuked or reprimanded them, and reminded said officers that they were in the presence of the press.  Some things you can say over drinks in the officers’ club, but those are not—generally—things you want to appear on the front page of the New York Times.  The sin lies not in saying them, but in saying them indiscreetly and to the wrong audience.

If the general is guilty of a crime, it is dereliction of duty by permitting his staff to verbally run roughshod over the civilian administration.  That is miles away from the hysterical media coverage that has been provided thus far.  This is not Truman versus MacArthur, where a general specifically went and made public statements at odds with the policy prescriptions of the President.  MacArthur was insubordinate (announcing a strategy that was in fact opposed by the White House) and in his arrogance, challenged a key principle of civil governance; McChrystal was negligent; nowhere in that article does he utter a policy at odds with that of his masters in Washington.

They are both firing offences, but there is a world of difference between them.  Enough of the hyperventilating comparisons.

RELATED: A poll at milblog Neptunus Lex, with unsurprising results.

ALSO RELATED: Jay Currie, Ben and Skippy Stalin want to see McChrystal get the boot.

BUT THAT’S DIFFERENT: Of course nobody remembers General Eric Shinseki’s public falling out with SecDef Rumsfeld during the 2003 run-up to the Iraq War.  Funny how Shinseki wasn’t compelled to make obeisance to his political masters then.

Category: Foreign Affairs  Tags: ,
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3 Responses
  1. I remember Shinseki, sure.

    I also remember that he was retired early.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    By about a year, yes. Not an apples-to-apples comparison exactly, there were also other guys ushered out early because of differences with the SecDef.

  3. Chris Taylor says:

    It’s also clear to me in re-reading the article that I erred in describing his second “bad” quote as waving away a question from the VP. McChrystal was pretending to wave away a question from someone at the Paris dinner party, about his previous strategy differences with the VP.

    Something like Trudeau feigning innocence with “Where’s Biafra?”

    Trying to skate out of answering a political question, not a “Joe Who?” moment.