We finally know why General David Petraeus slumped over at last week’s hearing before Congress. He must have known that an astonishing profile of his protégé, General Stanley McChrystal, was forthcoming in Rolling Stone.
Petraeus recovered quickly. McChrystal won’t, at least not until the military abbreviation “Ret.” appears after his name.
It’s hard to overstate the bad judgment in granting access to a magazine that has on its cover, in the very same edition as the McChrystal story, Lady Gaga in the near-altogether, with a black thong and two machine gun turrets for a bra that Madonna would envy.
In the piece, McChrystal and his aides figuratively disrobe for writer Michael Hastings, letting him in on their merciless ridiculing of anyone who doesn’t fully support their strategy in Afghanistan.
McChrystal is described as being “disappointed” at how unprepared President Barack Obama was for their first meeting. The general and his staff spent some time before a speech in Paris dreaming up clever insults if he’s asked about Vice President Joe Biden, who at one time had opposed increasing U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. McChrystal suggests the quip be, “Who’s that?” Meantime, 18-year-old soldiers are dying in a war that began when they were in fourth grade.
In another stunt, McChrystal makes a show of being reluctant to open an e-mail from U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke -- who, keep in mind, is overseeing no less than the reintegration of the Taliban. An aide explains that McChrystal considers Holbrooke a “wounded animal,” dangerous ever since rumors began that he would be fired. As for National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a former Marine Corps general, a McChrystal aide calls him “a clown” who is “stuck in 1985.”
The real clown is McChrystal. No matter what he thinks -- generals often believe they know better than the suits in Washington -- he broke the cardinal rule of the military brass: do not openly question civilian authority. It’s a firing offense, if not grounds for a court-martial. A general far more popular than McChrystal -- Douglas MacArthur, who was considered a viable candidate for president -- was dismissed in 1951 by President Harry S. Truman after publicly questioning U.S. policy in Korea. Generals have stayed in line ever since.
Like MacArthur, McChrystal recently tried his hand at making foreign policy. According to the Washington Post, he declared that the critical move to secure Kandahar would be delayed while U.S. forces continued the difficult task of winning local support. That was another way of saying that Obama’s July deadline for drawing down troops was inoperable.
Just as corruption at the former Minerals Management Service should have been a red flag that oil drillers might be taking reckless risks, Obama should have seen this McChrystal meltdown coming.
McChrystal chose to launch his campaign for 30,000 more U.S. troops with a leak to Bob Woodward and a speech in London. He hit the tender spot of any Democratic commander-in-chief worried, post-Vietnam, about looking weak on national security. Obama opted not to punish McChrystal, having concluded that the general was simply “in over his head in the media world,” Jonathan Alter wrote in “The Promise,” his account of Obama’s first year as president.
In fact, McChrystal could give lessons to Robert Gibbs in press management. While Obama was cast as indecisive and sensitive to politics over Afghanistan, McChrystal was portrayed on “60 Minutes,” in the New York Times and elsewhere as focused like a laser on what’s best for the U.S., whether jumping from a Black Hawk or sleeping just four hours a night.
His square-jaw bravado and desert swagger kicked up enough sand to obscure his failure to capture Osama bin Laden and his shameful role in enabling the Bush White House to perpetrate the lie that Pat Tillman, a genuine patriot and hero, had been killed by something other than friendly fire.
In one week in Afghanistan this month, a U.S. helicopter was shot down and 26 NATO soldiers killed just as President Hamid Karzai let it be known he was negotiating his own deal with the Taliban. Like many of his countrymen, he’s concluded the U.S. won’t defeat the insurgents militarily.
McChrystal’s behavior could be explained by the specter of becoming one more headstone in the graveyard of empires defeated in unwinnable wars. With the real war not going well, he thought he could win a PR war with the likes of Biden and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry.
Eye on History
In one revealing passage, he says Eikenberry leaked a cable critical of McChrystal’s strategy so that “if we fail, they can say ‘I told you so.’” Must be nice, in the midst of a shooting war, to find time to worry about covering your fanny for the history books. Unlike Lady Gaga, McChrystal truly bared all for Rolling Stone.
The article is McChrystal’s unintended exit strategy, as hubristic and ham-handed as anything tried by the generals in Vietnam. There are no monuments to William Westmoreland. There will be none to McChrystal.
(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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