Will Heads Roll due to McChrystal’s Controversial Rolling Stone Profile? (UPDATED)
Add Gen. Stanley McChrystal now at the center of yet another shift from the way American political culture has typically worked. Although there have been exceptions, top military officials have generally stayed above the political fray when it comes to politics, keeping their reservations, anger, feelings about key political players and other military officials to themselves and making sure those close around them also stay out of the political mix.
But now a profile in Rolling Stone suggests that although a rolling stone may gather no moss a top military official who has a profile that winds up criticizing some top politicos including the President and Vice President may face a political snowball growing bigger as it rolls down a hill. Even if top GOPers convinced McChrystal to get involved in politics it’s hard to see how his profile reportedly taking potshots at President Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry will help — particularly because Afghanistan is not a popular war overall and chances are it’ll promises to be less popular as time goes on.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that McChrystal has been summoned to the White House. It increasingly seems as if his military career days may be numbered:
The top U.S. general in Afghanistan was summoned to Washington for a White House meeting after apologizing Tuesday for flippant and dismissive remarks about top Obama administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy.
The remarks in an article in this week’s in Rolling Stone magazine are certain to increase tension between the White House and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.
The profile of McChrystal, , titled the “Runaway General,” also raises fresh questions about the judgment and leadership style of the commander Obama appointed last year in an effort to turn around a worsening conflict.
UPDATE II: Be sure to see excellent later posts on this story written from other perspectives by TMVer’s Logan Penza and Jerry Remmers. Refresh TMV often since more posts by other TMV authors are also in the works now.
Relations between McChrystal and the White House have never been stellar. So let’s just say that now in the wake of this profile they are less stellar — a lot less stellar — than they’ve been ever before. The AP gives this summary, which notes that in the profile although McChrystal had liked Obama, once he met him he was most assuredly unimpressed with a meeting he felt had only been a photo op — and he felt the U.S Ambassador had “betrayed” him on war strategy. The Wall Street Journal’s political wire gives this recap:
In the eight-page article, released to reporters on Monday ahead of publication, McChrystal appears to belittle Vice President Joe Biden and accuses Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, of undermining his war plan within the administration.
Asked by the Rolling Stone reporter about what he now feels of the war strategy advocated by Biden last fall – fewer troops, more drone attacks – the article reports that McChrystal and his aides attempted to come up with a good one-liner to dismiss the question. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal reportedly jokes. “Who’s that?”
Later in the article, McChrystal turns more serious when asked about cables sent last fall to Washington by Eikenberry. The cables called into question the major troop increase advocated by McChrystal’s team and the U.S.’s backing of Afghan President Hamid Karzai – views that the ambassador had not previously raised with McChrystal or his staff.
“I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” McChrystal is quoted as saying. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’”
The article, titled “The Runaway General,” has already caused nervousness inside the Pentagon, where memories are still fresh of another blistering profile that got a top commander in hot water: an August 2008 cover story in Esquire on Adm. William “Fox” Fallon, then commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article eventually played a part in Fallon’s resignation two years ago.
In that Esquire piece, however, Fallon appeared to directly contradict White House policy on Iran and other parts of the Middle East; the Rolling Stone article makes no such allegation, but rather is full of jokey put-downs of important Washington players.
According to reports, most of the real zingers come from anonymous quoted sources. But in 21st century America a public figure who tries to limbo-dance his way out of a story due to the use of anonymous quoted sources will be sorely disappointed: it is now accepted journalistic practice, plus Rolling Stone’s reporting is well enough respected and goes through enough levels of editing and second guessing so that like it or not the magazine’s pieces are considered journalistically solid.
Indeed, there have apparently been two immediate results of the advance word on this piece:
#1: He has apologized. This from the WSJournal piece’s update:
“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard. I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome.”
Still not a good outcome: the Rolling Stone piece coupled with his apology mean some of his clout — the kind of clout derived from personal relationships versus official capacities — has been reduced within the administration and perhaps among those in the military who believe military officials need to stick with tradition on how politics or disagreements are handled (d-o-w-n-p-l-a-y-e-d and in p-r-i-v-a-t-e).
#2: He immediately heard from not just displeased administration officials — but displeased military higher-ups. Marc Ambinder reports:“Within hours after today’s Rolling Stone story broke, McChrystal was called by the White House, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They were not happy.”
All of this suggests that McChrystal is either a)in the doghouse and/or b)somewhere along the line over the next year or two by either his choice or others making the choice for him may have to decide to spend more time with his family.
Ambinder frames the damage he has inflicted on himself quite well:
What in the heck was Gen. Stanley McChrystal thinking? I mean, I know what he was thinking: he was tired of being the victim of what he believes is a concerted effort on behalf of Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry and others to undermine everything he was given 18 months to do. He was tired of being perceived in the press as a neoconservative killer, Dick Cheney’s hired assassin, or disloyal to President Obama and his staff. He was angry at being blamed for leaking the draft of his report to the President to Bob Woodward. (He did NOT leak the document). He was miffed that a large number of mid-ranking soldiers and battalion commanders and enlisted guys didn’t support his strategy.
What I don’t know is which of McChrystal’s aides thought it would be a good idea to let his senior staff speak on background to Rolling Stone (!) of all publications, venting McChrystal’s frustrations and their own.
Because if there was ONE thing McChrystal could do to reduce trust between himself and the National Security Council leading up to December’s planned policy review, it was to allow a staffer to mock Joe Biden and call the national security adviser a “clown” … and to put words in McChrystal’s own mouth that denigrate Eikenberry.
I don’t think McChrystal intended to do this. Nevertheless, he did.
And — most certainly – the damage is done to McChrystal, his career within the military, and most likely due to this some of his arguments since the human factor does influence policy. This flap could cause some talk show hosts to push for him for elected office but if this is an example of his political smarts, don’t bet on him having an easy path to whatever office he decided to go for.
HERE’S SOME ADDITIONAL REACTION:
President Obama absolutely must fire McChrystal for subordination. You can’t have the office of the vice presidency disrespected in public by a general in uniform that way. Nor is it plausible that the Obama team has a prayer of getting Afghanistan right, assuming such a thing is possible, if the commanding military officer and the ambassador are feuding like the Baizai and the Ranizai.
Obama has largely misunderstood the historical moment in the US. He appears to have thought that we wanted a broker, someone who could get everyone together and pull off a compromise that led to a deal among the parties. We don’t want that. We want Harry Truman. We want someone who will give them hell. We don’t want him to say one day that Wall Street is making obscene profits when the rest of the country suffers, then the next day say that the brokers deserve their bonuses. We don’t want him to mollify Big Oil one day then bash it the next. More consistent giving of hell, please.
If Obama doesn’t fire McChrystal, he will never be respected by anybody in the chain of command that leads to his desk. Moreover, moving McChrystal out now would be a perfect opportunity to pull the plug on the impractical counter-insurgency campaign that the latter has been pursuing, which probably has only a 10% chance of success. (A RAND study found that where a government that claimed to be a democracy actually was not, and where it faced an insurgency, it prevailed only 10% of the time. Sounds like President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan to me.)
Today Reuters carried the extraordinary story of General Stanley McChrystal’s apology for an interview given by his aides to Rolling Stone magazine basically dissing his commander in chief as being unprepared. McChrystal said, “I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.” It’s a little late for that. Rolling Stone reported McChrystal as accusing the top US diplomat in Afghanistan of “betraying” him and said he had been disappointed to find his Commander in Chief unprepared when he finally met him at the White House.
Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic is perplexed. “What I don’t know is which of McChrystal’s aides thought it would be a good idea to let his senior staff speak on background to Rolling Stone (!) of all publications, venting McChrystal’s frustrations and their own.” He somewhat pointlessly suggests this incident will hamper McChrystal’s campaign in Afghanistan by undermining his relationship with the President. But the real story is why things suddenly seem so odd, why Washington suddenly seems like the isle of Cthulhu where geometric laws no longer hold.
—Taylor Marsh quotes from a report about the Rolling Stone piece that has this line:”The article claims McChrystal has seized control of the war “by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.” and she writes:
I’m just stunned.
Evidently so was Gen. McChrystal, because he’s already issued an apology even before the profile hits the stands…
…Regardless of the unintended consequences of the profile, if this apology saves him it will be a miracle.
….,[Writing on war policy and a review of it]:There is no definition of “success” to be found from reviewing the report. Maybe someone else can offer some light, but as someone who has been for Obama’s Afghanistan policy, I just don’t see this ending well at all, if ever ending.
However, the only thing likely to get any attention is Gen. McChrystal giving a possible career ending interview.
Afghanistan is killing us in so many different ways. It makes my realist vein throb
Reserve judgment until the article is published later this week, but if it’s half as bad as the AP description makes it sound — the American leadership at war with itself while the drive towards Kandahar has stalled — there’s going to be major fallout.
The way the AP account is written, it sounds like McChrystal badmouthed Karl Eikenberry on the record with the magazine. Gulp.
…Compare and contrast the McChrystal/Eikenberry relationship with that of Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, whom Foreign Policy noted last year never allowed their disagreements to go public. This isn’t the first time McChrystal’s spoken publicly about matters the White House would prefer remained in-house, either. Remember last year when The One freaked out over his speech in London calling for more troops?
There’ll be more on this later in the week, needless to say, but it’s worth putting it on your radar screen now…
…McChrystal retreats. Is it fast enough to save him?
My bet? In the end, no.
More than an administration and its policies are at play here. Rather, it’s an issue of how military officials have traditionally conducted themselves in American politics. It’s not just some politicians who’ll be raising their eyebrows on this one…