Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I've been following the scandal surrounding the remarks of General Stanley McChrystal fairly closely and have a few thoughts to add to the discussion kicked off by Jeff. I'll leave the decision of whether to sack McChrystal to the President, who said today he will make the opinion based on "how [he] can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making [in Afghanistan]," but I don't think that the issue is the same kind of Rubicon-crossing challenge to the chain of command that Jeff implies in his post.

First, a few misunderstandings bear some brief analysis:

1) General McChrystal will almost certainly offer to resign, but President Obama's acceptance is far from certain.

2) General McChrystal is not new to the media. With fellowship stays at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as briefing the press during the Iraq invasion as the Vice Director for Operations on the Joint Staff, McChrystal should know the media quite well.

3) The vast majority of the quotes came from unsourced aides of McChrystal, not the general himself. TPM has a good summary of the most damning quotes from McChrystal's "Team America." This doesn't excuse their comments, or those made by McChrystal himself, but the Rolling Stone story wasn't just a profanity-laced interview by McChrystal, as some have made it out to be.

3-a) It is okay to vent and blow off steam, even regarding one's superiors, in a high-stress environment like Afghanistan. Doing so is natural, healthy, and far from an offense against the political order or the UCMJ. But that only applies when one does so privately. When you do so on the record to a reporter, no excuses apply.

Simply put, if the President is to fire his commander in Afghanistan, it should be for gross negligence, not purposeful insubordination. General McChrystal showed extremely poor political judgement in allowing the Rolling Stone reporter close access and allowing his staff to vent their frustrations on the record. Some might argue that McChrystal's job as a military commander is not to be political, but I don't think that argument is very strong when you're in a Senate-confirmed position leading the highly visible campaign in Afghanistan.

Of course this latest kerfluffle comes after a similar public disagreement last fall, when McChrystal was publicly chided for contravening his superiors during the President's Afghanistan Policy Review. In the end, President Obama's decision depends on whether he gives McChrystal a second (or fourth, depending on your perspective) chance. We'll see tomorrow.


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