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General McChrystal Crosses The Line

General Stanley McChrystal is in some pretty hot water after giving what can only be called a bizarre interview to Rolling Stone:

KABUL — The top U.S. general in Afghanistan apologized Tuesday for a magazine article that portrays him and his staff as flippant and dismissive of top Obama administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy.

The profile in Rolling Stone magazine, titled the “Runaway General,” is certain to increase tension between the White House and Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

It 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.

McChrystal and some of his senior advisors are quoted criticizing top administration officials, at times in starkly derisive terms. An anonymous McChrystal aide is quoted calling national security adviser James Jones a “clown.”

Referring to Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted saying: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke, saying, “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke. I don’t even want to read it.”

U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired three-star general, isn’t spared. Referring to a leaked cable from Eikenberry that expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, McChrystal is quoted as having said: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.'”

A U.S. embassy spokeswoman said she had no immediate comment on the piece.

The magazine hits newsstands Friday. The Washington Post received an advance copy from the profile’s author, Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist who has written for the Post.

“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile,” McChrystal said in a statement issued Tuesday morning. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should have never happened.”

Here are a few highlights, if that’s the right word, from the interview:

On Joe Biden:

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal reportedly joked. “Who’s that?”

(…)

On Jim Jones:

Another aide reportedly called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones, a retired four star general, a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”

On Richard Holbrooke:

“The boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” one of the general’s aides was quoted as saying. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

On Obama:

“Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. The boss was pretty disappointed,” the adviser told the magazine.

MSNBC is reporting this morning that McChrystal has been summoned to Washington for a meeting in the White House Situation Room that is likely to be even more tense than his Air Force One meeting with President Obama only six months ago.

This isn’t the first time that McChrystal’s outspokenness has seemed to stray very close to the line of insubordination, of course. Last year, a report he wrote for the Joint Chiefs that was supposed to have been confidential was leaked to the public, some news sources reported that McChrystal had threatened to resign if the President did not grant him all the troops he requested, McChrystal allowed himself to be dragged into an absurd conservative blog meme about how many times he had met with the President, and McChrystal made a very public speech in London criticizing the Administration.

As James wrote at New Atlanticist at the time of that last incident:

This isn’t exactly Douglas MacArthur territory.  Obama has yet to outline a competing strategic vision and McChrystal is essentially just making a full-throated defense of the doctrine he was sent to carry out.  But it does put his commander-in-chief in a rather awkward position.

His approach is at stark contrast to that of Kip Ward, commander of United States Africa Command, who repeatedly deflected questions about strategic priorities in his Atlantic Council appearance earlier in the week.  Each time such a query was posed, he simply noted that he takes his orders from the president and the secretary of defense.

Somewhere in between these tacks strikes me as the proper mode for four-star commanders. They should work within the commander’s intent — which in McChrystal’s case means that of CENTCOM chief David Petraeus as well as the president and SECDEF  — but also use their professionaljudgment in how best to carry out their mission.  When it’s obvious that the president and his senior advisors are seriously considering a major policy change, however, it’s probably best for the generals to provide their inputs in private to avoid giving the appearance of undermining civilian control of policy.

That was then, of course. Now, I think things are different. This time, McChrystal is openly criticizing his civilian superiors, including not only the President but, according to summaries of the article, the Vice-President, the Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the National Security Advisor.

Does this stray into MacArthur territory ? Well, it sure as heck comes close.

What happens to McChrystal at this point is up to Obama, but given the General’s public statements it’s hard for me to see how the White House and Pentagon can keep him in place. This is insubordination, and there’s really only one appropriate response.

Update: Via Mark Halperin, here is the complete article.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. sam says:

    My first reaction when I read the story in the Times was, “What in the hell was he thinking?”

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  2. Jim Henley says:

    Apart from the insubordination, the sheer egotism of the “DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM????” variety when commenting on his meeting with Obama is pretty damning.

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  3. [...] take on what is likely to be the big news of today and tomorrow over at Outside The [...]

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  4. [...] Outside the Beltway What happens to McChrystal at this point is up to Obama, but given the General’s public statements it’s hard for me to see how the White House and Pentagon can keep him in place. This is insubordination, and there’s really only one appropriate response. [...]

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  5. Verdetian says:

    The sad part is that after he spoke his mind (and the truth) McChrystal pulls a rank amateur political move and withdraws from the field. Makes Obama, a clear rank amateur on the world stage himself, look more powerful than he really is. McChrystal showed lack of judgement with the profile but no manhood with his apology. Call it like it is, General. BHO is a joke as CiC.

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  6. DavidL says:

    I question the whole idea of an interview with Rolling Stone. Heck, I don’t like the idea of celebrity generals.

    However aside from Dim Won, POTUS, Barack Hussien Obama, and McChrystal immediate supervisor, General David Petraeus, who is covered by insubornation?. Not Vice Buffoon Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Karl Eikenberry or Jm Jones. None are in McChrystal chain of command. McChrystal owes no loyaty to buffoons who not in his chain of command.

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  7. MarkedMan says:

    McChystral is the wounded animal. I have no inside knowledge, but I’m guessing the decision to appoint McChrystal went something like this.
    Obama: “Give me a reason why we shouldn’t just pull out. Hell, just coherently explain what ‘win’ would look like.”
    McKiernan: “Can’t do it. We need three or four more years, thousands of lives and hundreds of billions more dollars just to put us in a holding plan while we try to construct a plan.”
    Obama: “I want to pull out but I have to be able to say I gave it full chance to succeed. Is there any credible General who is willing to pull it off?”

    Enter McChrystal who promises anything, believing (since everyone is an idiot but him) he can lead Obama and his staff around by the nose and drag it out indefinitely. Now that he finds he can’t, he’s blaming everyone else.

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  8. Dave says:

    The sad part is that after he spoke his mind (and the truth) McChrystal pulls a rank amateur political move and withdraws from the field. Makes Obama, a clear rank amateur on the world stage himself, look more powerful than he really is.

    Whatever your thoughts on his pre-election qualifications for the job, at this point Obama is, by constitutional definition, more powerful than McChrystal. He has in fact been hired by quite a prestigious organization to be the professional commander of the world’s largest military.

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  9. PD Shaw says:

    This seems more like a McClellan moment. McChrystal (or primarily his staff) appear more insolent than insubordinate. Disrespect to the political branch is not good for a democracy and not good for the independence of the military. Assuming McChrystal makes the appropriate apologies and acquiescences, the question becomes whether he is essential to completing the mission in the shortening timeframe or whether his presence will be a continuing distraction and point of intrigue in that goal.

    Lincoln resolved his McClellan problem by accepting a lot of indignity from his little general, until the moment came where he had a replacement that he thought could do no worse.

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  10. Ole_Sarge says:

    Reference the UCMJ. Article 88. Contempt towards Officials (meaning Civilian Officials), Gen. Mc Chrystal, and many of his staff officers were in fact, in violation of this Article, as evidenced by the author of the Rolling Stone article.

    Unless the article is a total work of fiction, the goose is cooked for many of these people.

    It DOES NOT MATTER what one’s personal feelings are, when you are in uniform, and in command or supervision positions, there are very strict limits on what to can “vent” and to whom.

    Ask the many people that were “forced to retire” under the Clinton Administration.

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  11. Schmedlap says:

    Please explain the statement that “McChrystal is openly criticizing his civilian superiors, including not only the President but, according to summaries of the article, the Vice-President, the Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the National Security Advisor.”

    This article provides only alleged statements made by his staff about the VP and NSA. The statement about the President and Ambassador are hardly “openly criticizing,” given that neither statement was made “openly” and whether either one is actually critical is open to interpretation. Disappointment with a meeting is criticism? Pondering the behavior of an ambassador whose disagreements with you are well-known is criticism?

    If all of the hoopla over this event does result in McChrystal being sacked, then I hope that some more damning statements arise first, so that the sacking will at least be somewhat justified. If all that we’ve got right now is what you’ve presented, then this is a yawner.

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  12. Jim Henley says:

    You can infer high intelligence on McChrystal’s part from the whole incident. Assume he knows the war is hopeless, doesn’t want to get blamed, and needs a post-Afghanistan source of income. Getting sacked for comments critical of Obama gets him out of running a losing campaign and a first-class berth on the Wingnut Welfar gravy train. I can only say, “Well played, General.”

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  13. PD Shaw says:

    Ole Sarge, I think the more relevant article might be Article 134, which is the catch-all for speech that is prejudicial to good order and discipline or casts the military in disrepute. Other than calling the National Security Advisor a “clown,” neither he nor his staff apear to be engaged in the namecalling that was directed at Clinton. And I’m not sure the NSA is covered by Article 88.

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  14. Wayne says:

    How time changes. When the MSM shop around and found one general out of many that had a negative thing to say about Bush, it was a good thing and the patriotic duty for the General to speak out. How can we fix the problem if those involved can’t express themselves. Etc

    Now when there are many top officers and what I hear most of those on the ground who think the administration is doing a screw-up job, it is a bad thing and they need to keep their mouth shut.

    There is always some tension between the military that is on the ground doing the job and political commanders back home. However if there is that much tension and from what I hear there is more, then there is probably good reasons for it.

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  15. An Interested Party says:

    How time changes, indeed…I wonder how many who feel sympathy for McChrystal now would have felt sympathy for any military official who talked similarly about the Bush Administration back then…

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  16. MarkedMan says:

    Wayne,

    I am a big supporter of Obama and never thought much of McChrystal, but I agree that those who supported active generals speaking out against Bush were wrong then. And despite the fact that I though Bush was completely out of his depth and made bad decisions, I agree with you that if they now dump on McChrystal they are being hypocritical.

    I believe I have been consistent – if a General feels they are being ordered an impossible or counterproductive task, and cannot get the orders changed, they are free to resign and speak out, but should not undermine authority while on active duty.

    But I don’t think McChrystal could fall into that honorable General category. He made a case for an 18 month plan, by all accounts assured the president he would have made very significant progress by now, and has not delivered. Lashing out at everyone else rings of desperation, not honor.

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  17. Wayne says:

    MarkedMan
    Fair enough. However on McChrystal promises, the assumption was with the Presidents and his administration backing and support. From the sound of it, it has been just the opposite. I heard the rules of engagement imposed by this administration have been asinine. It is hard to accomplish anything when your hands are tied by your boss. A million troops wouldn’t do you any good if they have to sit on their hands.

    When so many are so extremely frustrated by the political B.S. during a war, it is not hard for a reporter to find it. That said they should have been more careful of what they said around a reporter.

    Isn’t it odd the MSM are not interested in why these military personnel are so upset with Obama and his administration compare to Bush?

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