(This is ancient news in internet-years, but I kept waiting for someone else to make this point when the story was actually making headlines, and as far as I could tell, no one did. So now I’m writing about it. If you think that General McChrystal’s firing is insufficiently au courant blog fare, feel free to stop reading now.)
To recap, for anyone who has been in an internet-less cave this month: a couple of weeks ago, Rolling Stone published a profile of U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who was then in charge of the U.S.’s military efforts in Afghanistan,, and there was some stuff in it that was way harsh, Tai. President Obama didn’t like that – apparently it’s cool to have disagreements, but not divisions – so McChrystal got fired. (Oh, and also there were a bunch of Russian spies living boring lives in American suburbs. That’s not what this post is about, but if you’ve been in an internet-less cave, you probably missed the spyskies too.)
The press seems to have smelled blood in the water the second that the White House first got wind of the piece, the Monday before it came out. Every major news organization offered minute-by-minute updates on every scrap of rumor, innuendo, and third-party opinion they could lay their hands on, until they finally got to feast on the carcass of a career destroyed the way god intended: by a journalist. A freelancer, no less.
Somehow, though, all the wailing and gnashing of teeth seems to have overlooked something: essentially all of the juicy quotes from the article are not from McChrystal. Rather, they’re quotes from largely-anonymous “aides” and “insiders.” So, as best I can tell, McChrystal was relieved of command of our troops in Afghanistan because people who were not McChrystal said things about our civilian leadership that were considered out of bounds, and McChrystal was….nearby at the time?
Seriously, let’s review the tape here. That infamous “Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?” quote was from a “top advisor.” The contention that McChrystal thought that Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” at their first meeting apparently came from “sources familiar with the meeting.” It was an “advisor to McChrystal” who claimed that the meeting where Obama placed the general in charge of Afghanistan was a “10 minute photo op,” in which “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, and he didn’t seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed.” A paragraph claiming that “team McChrystal” likes to “talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side” also only quotes anonymous aides: one who calls Jim Jones a “clown” who “remains stuck in 1985,” one who criticizes senators who swoop in for meet-and-criticize sessions with Karzai, then fly home again in time for the Sunday talk shows. (And, it should be noted, an “advisor” who says nice things about Hillary Clinton.)
I could go on. (For instance, it’s an “advisor” who says that McChrystal is especially skeptical of Holbrooke, and refers to the diplomat as a “wounded animal.”)
Of course, none of that would matter if what McChrystal said was really objectionable. So, was it? Judge for yourself: after the jump is a list of all of the quotes that Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings actually obtained from the general himself. Let me know what you think. Was there anything in those 11 statements that was a firing offense? Or are we holding McChrystal responsible for quotes that the reporter got from other, anonymous sources – who have not, as far as we know, been fired?
I think it’s the latter. This article was skillfully written: many of the devastating soundbites are nestled up against less-damning but related quotes from McChrystal, giving the impression that he agreed with what had been said. And, because many of the anonymous quotes seem to have been from people who worked for him, some commentators seem to have assumed that McChrystal must have condoned an environment in which civilian leaders were disrespected. Maybe so. But should that be a firing offense?
I don’t think so. I’m not comfortable with the idea that the tenure of the general responsible for running an entire war should hang by the slender thread of a bunch of third parties’ anonymous comments. That strikes me as not only fundamentally unfair, but also easily manipulated. Worse, it will encourage leaders to censor their subordinates whenever possible, and limit their access to the media. I imagine every ambitious officer in the country right now is deciding how to put a moat between the press and anyone who knows anything about him.
Didn’t President Obama ever watch Sports Night? “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” McChrystal seems to have taken that advice to heart – in the article, he listens to a platoon of soldiers who criticize him, to his face and in front of a reporter, and then responds to their comments with patience and respect. The President, however, should perhaps brush up on his Aaron Sorkin leadership principles. Firing McChrystal over the anonymous comments made by other people sends a message to the military (and the rest of Washington, for that matter) that surrounding yourself with smart people who disagree with you is now career suicide. That’s a pretty decent way to ensure that ambitious people will now surround themselves with sycophantic hacks, instead. So, yay! Because that will surely have a really swell effect on our ability to find strong, creative solutions to the several problems currently facing this country.
What McChrystal Actually Said to the Rolling Stone Reporter:
(quotes in bold, explanatory text not in bold):
- He asked how he got “screwed into” going to dinner with a French government minister, and says he’d “rather have his ass kicked by a room full of people” than attend, but that “unfortunately, no one in this room could do it.”
- He asked “What’s the update on the Kandahar bombing?”
- He said that when Obama took three months to decide on an Afghanistan strategy last fall, “I found that time painful. I was selling an unsellable position.”
- He imagined responding to an awkward question about Vice President Biden (who, a few months earlier, had publicly criticized the counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal advocated) with “Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?”
- During the course of a drunken night out at an Irish bar, he pointed to his carousing advisors and said “all these men, I’d die for them. And they’d die for me.” Also, apparently he and his aides sang some sort of “Afghanistan song” that they had made up, which goes “Afghanistan!….Afghanistan!”
- Later, upon receiving an email on his blackberry from Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, he groaned “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke, I don’t even want to open it.”
- When asked about a leaked classified cable sent by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, which Hastings describes as a “brutal critique” of McChrystal’s strategy, the general said “I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” that he felt “betrayed” by the leak, and “here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.'”
- Upon graduating from West Point, McChrystal recalls that he and his classmates “really felt like we were a peacetime generation.” “There was the gulf war, but even that didn’t feel like that big of a deal.”
- He goes to visit a platoon stationed outside Kandahar after one of their soldiers is killed, and has a 45-minute discussion with about 2 dozen of the platoon’s surviving members. “I ask you what’s going on in your world, and I think it’s important for you all to understand the big picture as well.” He continues, “How’s the company doing? You guys feeling sorry for yourselves? Anybody? Anybody feel like you’re losing?” A soldier pipes up to say that yes, some of the guys do feel that way. McChrystal nods, and responds “Strength is leading when you just don’t want to lead. You’re leading by example. That’s what we do. Particularly when it’s really, really hard, and it hurts inside.”
- He then spends 20 minutes describing counterinsurgency theory, diagramming the concepts and principles on a whiteboard. “We are knee-deep in the decisive year,” he says, telling the troops that the Taliban doesn’t have the initiative, “but I don’t think we do, either.” The soldiers seem skeptical, so McChrystal cracks a joke: “This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks, but it doesn’t get the same reception from infantry companies.”
- McChrystal then takes comments from the soldiers, many of whom are angry and frustrated. They complain about “not being allowed to use lethal force, about watching insurgents they detain be freed for lack of evidence,” and want to “be able to fight.” The general listens, but tells them it’s not that simple: “Winning hearts and minds in COIN is a coldblooded thing. The Russians killed 1 million Afghans, and that didn’t work.” When the soldier persists, claiming that their restraint is empowering the insurgency, McChrystal responds “I agree with you. IN this area, we’ve not made progress, probably. You have to show strength here, you have to use fire. What I’m telling you is, fire costs you. What do you want to do? You want to wipe the population out here and resettle it?” Another soldier complains about having to assume that “any insurgent who doesn’t have a weapon” is a civilian. McChrystal says that’s a necessary evil: “That’s the way this game is. It’s complex. I can’t just decide: it’s shirts and skins, and we’ll kill all the shirts.”
- The soldiers remain unconvinced. Before leaving, McChrystal acknowledges the pain that the death of their comrade has caused them. “There’s no way I can make that easier. No way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not to feel that . . . . I will tell you, you’re doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration get to you.”
- He acknowledges the complexity of the war he’s fighting: “even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan.”
So which of those statements is a sackable offense? Is it because he insulted the French?