McChrystal deserves another chance

General Stanley McChrystal is in hot water for a profile of him in the coming issue of Rolling Stone. That it's titled "The Runaway General" gives a pretty good indication of the slant of the article, which also describes the Marja offensive as "doomed."

I certainly agree with Peter's post -- McChrystal didn't do himself any favors and his staff sure didn't serve him well allowing the reporter to hear their rough talk. He says numerous impolitic things, including evidently telling the reporter he voted for President Obama (it's practically an article of faith in the American military to keep one's votes to one's self), and laughing when a staffer says something demeaning about Vice President Joe Biden.

But McChrystal also didn't commit treason, which is what the political backlash makes it sound like. He didn't disobey an order. He didn't go outside his chain of command to undercut the president.  He didn't say he knew better than his elected leadership what needed to be done.  He didn't even criticize the president other than to say he'd looked uncomfortable the first time he met the military leadership. This is not "his MacArthur moment," as commentators are suggesting.

The particular animus for Biden is unbecoming, but not unwarranted, for reasons the article itself makes clear (although it does not recognize). When told the Kandahar offensive will have to be postponed, the vice president crows that this validates his CT-plus approach. Not only is that petty score-keeping, it's substantively wrong.  The "rising tide" operational approach to Kandahar is even further from the stand-off strikes approach Biden is reported to have advocated in the Afghanistan policy review.

The article does give the war's critics a rallying cry to call for the resignation of someone whose strategy they disagree with. This was McChrystal's real blunder: giving his opponents something to use against his position. Those who oppose our deepening involvement in Afghanistan are calling for his resignation. But the president would be stupid to fire McChrystal. 

First of all, the president fired McChrystal's predecessor for being insufficiently creative in counterinsurgency, and no one doubts that McChrystal's approach is superior to any other, given what the president says our objectives are in Afghanistan. The president himself endorsed the administration's second Afghan policy review.

Second of all, McChrystal's comments are not particularly wide of the norm -- this is what war-fighters sound like when they're talking to each other. It's not polite, and it certainly isn't politically correct, but these are people doing deadly work. They develop cynical attitudes about civilians and our often impractical ideas. They do not feel understood, much less appreciated, by the political wheelers and dealers in Washington, and politically-motivated attacks on McChrystal will aggravate that. Let us not forget George Orwell's caution that "we sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." This is what rough men sound like, and we shouldn't want to wring that toughness out of them. They will not long remain a war-winning army if we do.

Third, the article claims McChrystal doesn't have the support of his soldiers, but that's unfair, for reasons the article demonstrates. It describes an anguished sergeant's email to McChrystal about restrictive rules of engagement. McChrystal engages the soldier, explains the "arithmetic of counterinsurgengy."  The sergeant writes again, with great bitterness, after losing a soldier in an IED strike.  McChrystal goes to the unit, listens to the complaints, and addresses them in detail.  The article makes it sound like McChrystal fails a leadership test because the soldiers don't applaud him when he finishes. These are soldiers grieving the loss of a buddy -- it would be crazy if that had been their reaction. McChrystal understands their grief, doesn't try to brush it away, but tries to give the soldiers a sense of the broader picture.  This is what good leadership looks like.

Fourth, we keep telling our military to be open to the media, to give reporters access so they understand the war. Thirty-five years into an all-volunteer force, with less than one percent of Americans serving in the military, we know little about the experience of the people who put themselves in harm's way for us. This article gives a window into what they look like.  If McChrystal is punished for showing us that, you can bet it will send a chill through military-media relations.

Fifth and finally, as Major General Mayville is presciently quoted in the article describing the end game in Afghanistan, "this won't end in victory...it will end in an argument." The president should want the war-fighters on his side when he draws down.  He has that tenuously now, but if he dumps McChrystal overboard, the policy will have a much sharper civil-military feel in July 2011 because the people fighting this war want to see it through to victory.

McChrystal's done a very creditable job of translating the president's political objectives into military objectives and plans. He's building understanding among soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines doing difficult and deadly work for us in Afghanistan. The president ought to be willing to endure a lack of political polish in his war-fighters. He's already got plenty of political generals; he ought to want one or two that can actually win the wars we're fighting.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Obama and his generals

President Obama's awkward relations with his senior military commanders have just taken a turn for the worse - much worse.  A new article for the Rolling Stone, released in advance to reporters, dishes all sorts of gossipy dirt on what General McChrystal - or more precisely, what McChrystal's staff - really thinks about the key principals on Obama's National Security Council team.  Alas, McChrystal and his staff do not think very highly of them, and they were foolishly willing to share their low opinions with an obliging reporter.

The put-downs are remarkably sophomoric -- "Biden? Did you say: Bite me?" -- and the entire affair reads like a bad high school feud (cue the writers of Glee looking for material for next season). Like a petty high school feud, this new flare-up is just the latest round in a back-and-forth that has gone on for a long time; it is following a script that was predictable long ago.  I do not know whether the reporting timelines support this inference, but it sure seems to me like the Rolling Stone story was McChrystal's staff retaliating for the equally disturbing attacks on McChrystal and Petraeus by White House political advisors in Jonathan Alter's semi-authorized account of the Afghan Strategy Review.

McChrystal has already apologized and his apology seems sincere. But it may not be enough to save his head from this famously thin-skinned White House. The last time a senior military commander spoke this unwisely to a reporter, he quickly resigned, and rightly so because his bad behavior thoroughly squandered whatever confidence his chain of command had in him by that point. McChrystal has a stronger battlefield record and so may have started with a bit more confidence to squander.  Moreover, President Obama may not want the painful confirmation hearings for McChrystal's successor that a hasty departure would generate. And the McChrystal interview accurately notes that other members of the Obama AfPak team are already on beltway insiders' short-lists to leave, opening up the possibility of widespread chaos at the top during the most critical year of the war so far. Obama might be wiser to bring McChrystal in for a tongue lashing and send him back into the fight as quickly as possible.

If Obama takes that course, he should also tongue-lash the other participants in this feud, namely his closest circle of White House advisors and his country team in Kabul. The Americans seem to be preoccupied with Washington enemies when they should be directing their fire at the real enemy -- the one that is firing bullets, not insults, at them.  Indeed, the dissension and back-biting that has characterized the Obama administration is precisely the sort of divide-and-conquer confusion we are trying to foster among the Taliban and Al Qaeda foes we are confronting in the AfPak theater. It is a tragic irony that we have proven more capable of sowing it among our own ranks than among the ranks of the enemy.

Good civil-military relations and the unity of command and effort they engender may not be sufficient to win. But in a war this complex, they may be a necessary condition for success. President Obama has not yet achieved good civil-military relations in the conduct of his wars and he does not have much time to get it right.  Let us hope that he finally heeds the wake-up call, however discordant and unfortunate it is.