Showdown | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein



The President and his General.

 Above the Fold

Update: Wednesday, 3:30 P.M.:   The president took the necessary step of accepting General McChrystal’s resignation this afternoon, and he did so for exactly the right reason:

    The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.  It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.  And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

    Go here to read the full text of the President’s remarks this afternoon.

    For the best explanation of why this had to happen, see the great Bob Dallek on the op-ed page of today’s Times  

    For the dumbest of all on-air commentaries last night, see George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s  World News, as he blithely ignores all of the essential constitutional issues and declares, “if the president fires McChrystal, he risks looking thin-skinned and petulant.”

    Equally bad: Martha Raddatz’s wet-kiss profile of the general on the same broadcast–exactly the kind of coverage which allowed McChrystal to be repeatedly promoted, long after he should have been fired–first for tolerating torture by his troops, and then for being at the heart of the cover-up of the killing of Pat Tillman by friendly fire.


From Tuesday….

    The early headlines about Michael Hastings’s superb piece in Rolling Stone  are all about the outright insubordination of General Stanley McChrystal and his staff, who openly belittled the president, the vice president, the American ambassador in Afghanistan, and the president’s special envoy to the region, Dick Holbrooke, during the month they spent in the company of the Rolling Stone reporter.  

    After the details from “The Runaway General” lit up the blogosphere this morning, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pointedly declined to say that McChrystal is safe in his post.  If Barack Obama genuinely believes in one of the central tenets of American democracy–civilian control of the military–he will fire McChrystal when he shows up at the White House tomorrow to explain himself.

    Here are some of the things McChrystal and his entourage told the Rolling Stone reporter about their civilian bosses and colleagues:

* When he first met Obama, McChrystal thought “he looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated’ by the roomful of military brass,” and when he met him a second time, a McChrystal aide said the general was again disappointed because “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him.”

* As he was about to deliver a speech at a French military academy, McChrystal and his staff joked about how he might deflect a question about the vice president: “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

* Like Biden, Karl Eikenberry, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, wisely opposed McChrystal’s demand for a troop surge.  In a leaked telegram to Washington, Eikenberry dismissed Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner,” and warned, “We will become more deeply engaged here with no way to extricate ourselves.”  McChrystal told Rolling Stone he felt “betrayed” by the leak, and added, “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ “

* A McChrystal aide called national security advisor Jim Jones “a clown” who remains “stuck in 1985.”

* McChrystal cringed upon receiving another e-mail from Dick Holbrooke, and another military aide quipped, “Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg.”

    Hastings does a fine job of capturing the general’s aura in just a few sentences:

    His slate-blue eyes have the unsettling ability to drill down when they lock on you. If you’ve fucked up or disappointed him, they can destroy your soul without the need for him to raise his voice.
    “I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” McChrystal says.
    He pauses a beat.
    “Unfortunately,” he adds, “no one in this room could do it.”

    And this is how he describes McChrystal’s entourage:

    The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs. There’s a former head of British Special Forces, two Navy Seals, an Afghan Special Forces commando, a lawyer, two fighter pilots and at least two dozen combat veterans and counterinsurgency experts. They jokingly refer to themselves as Team America, taking the name from the South Park-esque sendup of military cluelessness, and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority.

    Hastings made a  chilling discovery in the archives of a literary magazine at West Point to which McChrystal was a regular contributor.  In a story by the young cadet called  Brinkman’s Note “the unnamed narrator appears to be trying to stop a plot to assassinate the president. It turns out, however, that the narrator himself is the assassin, and he’s able to infiltrate the White House: ‘The President strode in smiling. From the right coat pocket of the raincoat I carried, I slowly drew forth my 32-caliber pistol. In Brinkman’s failure, I had succeeded.’”

    The immediate question today is how McChrystal and his staff could have been so dumb as to be so un-guarded in front of a reporter.   The most Machiavellian explanation is that the general already realizes his mission is doomed, and therefore wants to be fired so that he can go home.

       “It’s not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win,” Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal,  told the Rolling Stone reporter. “This is going to end in an argument.”

    But the guess here is that McChrystal is so used to seducing reporters he never imagined that one might finally come along and tell the truth about him.   In sharp contrast with Dexter Filkins’ squishy-soft profile  of the general in The New York Times Magazine last fall, Michael Hastings does not gloss over any of the details of McChrystal’s central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire, or the multiple abuses committed by his troops at the “Nama” base outside Afghanistan, where they routinely tortured prisoners, and festooned the base with signs reading “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL,” which Eric Schmitt and Carolyn Marshall reported in 2006 “reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’” (For more on all of this, see FCP’s McChrystal post from last October.)

    NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski and Richard Engel reported today  that McChrystal may actually have been a victim of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.   Hastings told the NBC men he was supposed to spend just two days with the general in Paris, but then he and his entourage got stranded by the volcano, and they ended up spending ten days with the reporter. “As the ash disrupted air travel, Hastings ended up being ‘stuck’ with McChrystal and his team for 10 days in Paris and Berlin. McChrystal had to get to Berlin by bus. Hastings says McChrystal and his aides were drinking on the road trip ‘the whole way.’”

      But the new article’s details about McChrystal’s shortcomings are not the only reason that it is vastly superior to the piece Filkins wrote last fall.  What is most important about the Rolling Stone article is the convincing evidence it presents of the utter hopelessness of the American effort in Afghanistan.

     Hastings writes that McChrystal’s vaunted new counterinsurgency strategy, know as COIN

    calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve.”

    “The entire COIN strategy is a fraud perpetuated on the American people,” said Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel and leading critic of counterinsurgency who attended West Point with McChrystal. “The idea that we are going to spend a trillion dollars to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.”

    Although the White House refused to give the general a vote of confidence today, he did receive enthusiastic support from a handful of Afghan “experts.”  A spokesman for President Hamid Karzai told the Associated Press that the Afghan leader thinks McChrystal “is a person of great integrity” and he hopes Obama will not replace him.  

    Karzai’s deeply corrupt half-brother,  Ahmad Wali Karzai, stongly supported the president’s position.  He said McChrystal “is active. He is honest. He does a good job, a lot of positive things have happened since he has come.”

    And then there was this from Michael O’Hanlon, the senior fellow at Brookings who is one of the most craven and most consistent supporters of America’s permanent war.  McChrystal made a big mistake, O’Hanlon told Politico, “but he is a fantastic general, and not only that but a modest man who is respectful of others…We need him, and Ambassador Eikenberry, for this effort, and I am confident knowing both men well that they can put these issues behind them for the greater good.”

    On the other hand, Joe Scarborough–yes, that Joe Scarborough– said, “This general has to be fired, he has to be gone by the end of the day,  Gates and Petraeus have to come out and fire McChrysta.l”

     Sens. John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham also failed to support the general.  They called McChrystal’s comments “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander-in-chief and the military.  The decision concerning Gen. McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the president of the United States,” they said.

    Tomorrow we will learn whether the president has the guts to finally get rid of him.