It didn’t take long for Jackson Diehl to be proven prophetic. Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama insisted in a Rose Garden statement that he would not “tolerate division” among his war council, someone’s leaking to CNN that Defense Secretary Robert Gates didn’t want General Stanley McChrystal fired. That seems to contradict a rather complimentary behind-the-scenes report from Politico’s Mike Allen, and demonstrates once again that McChrystal didn’t start the backbiting game but merely played along with it:
Defense Secretary Robert Gates backed keeping Gen. Stanley McChrystal on the job because he was vital to the war effort in Afghanistan, but he was overruled, a senior Pentagon official told CNN’s Barbara Starr.
The official has direct knowledge of the events but declined to be identified because of the internal administration discussions. …
Gates was initially furious about the article, but said McChrystal had to stay in command because the war is at such a critical point, a second source — who also asked not to be named on internal administration discussions — told CNN.
But as it became clear the White House didn’t feel same way and the issue was not going to fade, Gates shifted his position and agreed that keeping the general would be an untenable distraction.
According to Allen’s account, which sounds as though it got the White House Seal of Approval, everyone was on board from the very beginning:
Officials who participated in the discussions say no single passage was fatal to McChrystal. But the opening was really bad: It made the general sound more like a high-school knucklehead than a thoughtful warrior. As one aide dryly told Playbook: “The effect on allies was definitely a consideration.”
Intrade, the online prediction market, on Tuesday night had the chance of the general’s ouster at 75 percent. It turns out that was low. “People felt like you cannot have different rules just because you’re the top brass,” an aide said. “A kid who is some PFC [private first class], knows darn well that if he said these things about his commanding officer, he could potentially get thrown in jail.” From the beginning, according to participants, the controlling argument was: “As a matter of civilian control and chain of command, this kind of disrespect is simply untenable and he has to go. The article leaves murky the question of who is in charge, and sends the wrong signal, from the commanders down to the privates.”
So the boot was always the default. Officials say there was careful, extended debate about keeping McChrystal but it was always in the frame of, “Let’s examine the case for not accepting his resignation.” As one official put it, there were different schools of thought, but there weren’t different camps. Both sides were argued, sometimes by the same people. The best case for keeping the general always revolved around the mission: “McChrystal is the right guy to see it through, and he needs to be chastened but go finish the mission. A change in command would be disruptive and damaging.”
That view never gained traction, and there was some relief when it became clear that the consensus was: “We’re better off without him.”
Apparently not. Two people are unhappy enough about the outcome to start leaking Gates’ early dissent, and it sounds as though they’re both close to Gates. Gates may have acquiesced, but only in duress, and not in a paroxysm of “consensus,” as the Politico account would have one believe.
That makes Allen’s conclusion rather ironic:
That was about more than the “The Runaway General.” It was a message to Obama’s entire team that it should function like his loyal, leak-free campaign. A longtime Obaman told us: “This was a loud appeal to keep our eye on the ball. A war strategy is about more than any of its parts or personalities or egos or titles. It’s about getting the job done. That was absolutely intended in those remarks.”
This war council has fought many of its battles through leaks and press interviews. It only took hours after this supposed lesson to Obama’s team from the Commander in Chief for them to fall back to their media strategies. That’s a measure of leadership, and one that Obama is still failing.
Update: More irony from Lloyd Grove at the Daily Beast:
“His tone was stern,” said a high-level source familiar with the meeting in the White House Situation Room, called to address the fallout from a Rolling Stone article quoting McChrystal and his aides as trashing rivals in the administration.
The president admonished a group that included the Secretaries of Defense and State, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton; Vice President Biden; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen; the Commander of the U.S. Central Command and McChrystal’s immediate boss, General David Petraeus, who is replacing the ousted McChrystal in Afghanistan; the national security adviser, former Marine commandant General James Jones; and special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
“He said to those in the room, ‘We have to remember why we’re doing this,’” the source told me. “The president said he didn’t want to see pettiness, that this was not about personalities or reputations—it’s about our men and women in uniform and about serving our country.”
And this especially:
“I think that everybody has been shaken by this, and Stan paid the ultimate price,” the second source told me. “If this doesn’t focus them, nothing will. People elbowing one another for a better slot—Obama just doesn’t like that. His sobriquet is ‘no drama.’ This was more than drama; this was melodrama. This was operatic. …The waters are now calm, but there is blood in the water.”
Apparently, nothing will focus them, then.