America’s top commander in the war in Afghanistan found himself in deep trouble this morning as the news spread about a profile in Rolling Stone magazine in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal and members of his staff were said to crack wise at the expense of several members of the administration and the president himself.
But having read the text of the article, which is not yet available in the magazine’s online edition, it is clear that the uproar about the general’s supposed insubordination is not justified by the text. The only direct quotes from McChrystal are hardly the sorts of things for which he deserves to be summoned, as he reportedly has been, to Washington for a dressing down by the commander in chief.
One supposedly damning quote was supposed to be a slur on Vice President Joe Biden, who opposed the surge and McChrystal’s recommendations for pursuing the war. But all it amounts to is an exchange in which an aide gives some ribald advice about how to avoid answering any questions about the vice president. The other was a quote in which the general did criticize Karl Eikenberry, America’s ambassador to Kabul. Last year Eikenberry leaked a memo criticizing McChrystal and his strategies to the press in an effort to derail Obama’s decision to send the general the reinforcements he asked for. McChrystal rightly called that act by a former military colleague a “betrayal.” Those expecting McChrystal to be sacked because of the fallout from the article should also remember that Eikenberry did not lose his job over that incident even though the president has made it clear that leaks are to be severely punished.
The rest of the article is a thinly veiled attack on the war effort and the idea that it can be won by the counterinsurgency tactics that McChrystal has championed. While the piece resurrects every unflattering incident in the general’s long career, the accounts of McChrystal’s own behavior in the field in Afghanistan portray him as a courageous soldier who cares for his men and sympathizes with their dilemmas in dealing with the highly restrictive rules of engagement he has designed, which often place them in danger so as to avoid civilian casualties.
As for the other controversial quotes, the contempt that the soldiers seem to have for National Security Adviser James Jones, special diplomatic envoy Richard Holbrooke, and Ambassador Eikenberry is justified. Their unhappiness with Vice President Biden’s influence on war policy is also understandable, as is their reaction to the president’s own uncertain grasp of military strategy. But however much one might sympathize with McChrystal’s plight today, allowing his aides to gripe about their civilian masters in the presence of a freelance writer for Rolling Stone, of all publications, is as dumb as anything Obama’s merry band of strategic incompetents might have done. In a democracy, civilian-military tensions can only be resolved in one way: in favor of the civilians, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. George McClellan discovered to their great dismay. Right or wrong, it is not the place of a serving military commander to publicly question the wisdom of the president.
But if Obama takes the time to read the text of the article, he will see that McChrystal is not the disloyal soldier he is being painted as in the first press accounts of this story, such as in the New York Times’s account published today. Far from being evidence of McChrystal’s insubordination, the article actually says much more about the administration’s mistakes in the course of a war to which they have committed so much American blood and treasure. If there is dissension in the ranks about some of the political and diplomatic blunders of the past year and a half, it speaks more to Obama’s own failure to exert leadership than to McChrystal’s faults. While Obama may be annoyed at the publication of this piece, at a time when the outcome of the war is still very much in the balance the president’s focus now should be on how to help Stanley McChrystal win, not whether the general is sufficiently respectful of administration figures who are not helping him in that fight.