Via Chris Cillizza on Twitter, Politico has the PDF of the Rolling Stone article [update: RS article up now at this link] that has created a firestorm for General Stanley McChrystal — and it’s at least as bad as advertised. Michael Hastings paints a damning picture of a military leader who seems to have built a toadying entourage, whose disdain and contempt for the political leadership of the country drips from every page, and who doesn’t seem to mind who knows it — until it hits the presses. The most damning criticism comes not from McChrystal, however, but from one of his aides (language warning throughout post):
Taking the advice of both the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also fired Gen. David McKiernan – then the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan – and replaced him with a man he didn’t know and had met only briefly: Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years, since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.
Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much
better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”
That is the kind of revelation that either a commander of a theater of war saves for his memoirs, or resigns to make to Congress. During the war, however, the expectation is that all sides refrain from airing this kind of dirty laundry. McChrystal appears not to know that. Worse yet, these and other anecdotes from his inner circle appear to show that McChrystal either tolerates or actively encourages disrespect for the civilian leadership that runs the US military. Here’s another example, one a little more clear:
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?”
McChrystal reserves special skepticism for Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating the Taliban. “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” says a member of the general’s team. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN, and you can’t just have someone yanking on shit.”
At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” he groans. “I don’t even want to open it.” He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.
“Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,” an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.
Only one in Obama’s administration gets much respect — and you’ll be surprised who receives it:
Part of the problem is structural: The Defense Department budget exceeds $600 billion a year, while the State Department receives only $50 billion. But part of the problem is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side. One aide calls Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a “clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.” Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, “turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.” Only Hillary Clinton receives good reviews from McChrystal’s inner circle. “Hillary had Stan’s back during the strategic review,” says an adviser. “She said, ‘If Stan wants it, give him what he needs.’ ”
Some will say that we have had plenty of brilliant generals who won wars while being difficult and opinionated. That is true, but even those generals understood to keep their opinions within a tight, private circle — and knew not to encourage insubordination among their staff. George Patton wound up getting fired for airing too many of his opinions about de-Nazification and the Soviets publicly while administering post-war Germany; Douglas MacArthur, one of the most self-centered military leaders in American history, succeeded brilliantly until he publicly challenged his Commander in Chief on war strategies. Being right, or at least mostly right, didn’t do either Patton or MacArthur much good in the end, nor should it have.
So far, McChrystal hasn’t earned enough leash by winning anything. Regardless of what one thinks of the current C-in-C, Obama is still the man elected by the people to run the executive branch and the military. The picture this article paints is one of a lack of discipline and respect, and the White House has every right to demand an apology and replace McChrystal with someone who understands better the subtleties of overall command and its politics.
Will Obama fire McChrystal? It’s hard to say, mainly because of the critical juncture we face in Afghanistan and McChrystal’s deep involvement in all phases of the effort. But after reading the Rolling Stone article, which McChrystal has yet to deny, it would be very hard to blame Barack Obama if he canned McChrystal over it.
Update: Byron York says that McChrystal’s disdain for civilian leadership was a powderkeg waiting to blow:
I just got off the phone with a retired military man, with more than 25 years experience, who has worked with Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the Pentagon. His reaction to McChrystal’s performance in the new Rolling Stone profile? No surprise at all.
“Those of us who knew him would unanimously tell you that this was just a matter of time,” the man says. “He talks this way all the time. I’m surprised it took this long for it to rear its ugly head.”
Byron also points out the corner into which Obama has painted himself:
Obama is in a bind with McChrystal. There’s no doubt Obama would be fully justified in firing his top general. But at the same time Obama has committed himself to a rigid timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Changing commanders could complicate that enormously. Right now, because of his own policy decisions, the president has no good choice.
Not unless he can convince David Petraeus to return to field command.
Update II: Rolling Stone has now published the article on line at this link, which I’ve also added above.