McChrystal vs. Shinseki

Is there a double standard in play when generals criticize Democratic versus Republican presidents?

NewsBustersLachlan Markay sees a double standard at work.

No general should criticize his or her commander, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal is no exception. But the mainstream media is primarily concerned with the political fallout of McChrystal’s apparent insubordination as revealed by a piece in Rolling Stone. They are not concerned with whether his critiques are accurate, in stark contrast to other military officers’ critiques of war policy under the Bush administration.

During Bush’s tenure, active duty generals that spoke out against administration policy were portrayed as courageous whistleblowers. Retired generals were treated as ever-wise sages of military policy. None were scrutinized as McChrystal, pictured right, has been in the hours since Rolling Stone released its article.

The most prominent active duty general to earn the media’s affection was Gen. Eric Shinseki, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs (to the media’s delight). He insisted in 2003 that, contrary to Defense Department policy as iterated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the United States would need to send “hundreds of thousands” of troops to Iraq during the initial invasion. The media ate it up.

Granted, Shinseki made his comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee, a more appropriate setting than in the pages of a magazine. But the fact remains that Shinseki was expressing an opinion–one that undermined administration policy–and the media seized on his statement not as a commentary on the chain of command, but rather as criticism of the administration’s war effort.

But that’s a pretty big distinction! Shinseki had no choice but to give his honest opinions to Congress.  They have Constitutional oversight and his job as Army Chief of Staff was to render his “best military advice.”

Further, Shinseki wasn’t being disrespectful in the slightest to his superiors in the chain of command or to civilian officials of any stripe. He was simply stating his judgment that more troops were needed to get the job done.

McChystal, by contrast, was spouting off in profane, personal, disrespectful, and possibly contemptuous language about civilian officials to a reporter from a music magazine.  These are not only not in the same ballpark, it’s not even the same sport.

As to retired generals, they’re a different animal, entitled to much more leeway in expressing their thoughts.  Because they’re not on active duty!  They’re veritable civilians!  And yet I recall more than one article questioning whether it was proper for them to criticize the president and undermine troop morale during ongoing combat operations.

As to various reports of anonymous soldiers expressing disgruntlement, that’s been pretty standard color commentary in reporting for so long as I can remember.  Certainly, there was plenty of it during the Carter and Clinton administrations, with troops expressing their open (but not named!) contempt of the president.

Now, did liberal commentators use the words of these various military men against Bush and his war strategy when they could?   Sure.  But some conservatives are going to do the same with McChrystal’s remarks.   They’re out there in the public domain now and fair game for that purpose.

That doesn’t mean it’s not unprofessional — and possibly illegal — for a sitting general to make these statements.

FILED UNDER: Media, Military Affairs
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. TangoMan says:

    James,

    Could you please check the formatting options for comments. Blockquotes are being automatically bolded and text size is reduced. Here is an example.

    Also, would you please reinstate comment feeds for each post. As it stands now your comment feed aggregates all comments into one feed and it’s very difficult to stay on top the activity in one comment thread if it falls off the drop down list.

  2. steve says:

    Article 88, UCMJ

    “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

    This was stupidity of the first order on the part of McChrystal. There were multiple reviews on the tactics and strategy for Afghanistan. He had plenty of opportunity to speak out. He supposedly agreed with the plan. If he disagreed, he should have declined or resigned. Did he place career advancement over mission success? Doesn’t anyone read McMaster anymore?

    This is a no-win situation. Fire him and if the eventual outcome is bad, it will be seen as a personality issue. Do not fire him, and it promotes further insubordination and politicization of the officer corps. Hate to say it, but I think he should go, especially if Mattis agrees to replace him. I would get rid of Eikenberry also, since he pretty clearly has been less than professional.
    Boy this just sucks. If nothing else, can we retain someone this indiscrete?
    Steve

  3. James Joyner says:

    TangoMan:

    Not sure why it’s doing it but you didn’t have a paragraph break between the colon and the blockquote tag and that’s what’s triggering the odd fonting. When I hit return between the colon and blockquote and republish, it’s fine.

    Will look into the comment feeds. I didn’t know I had them to begin with! (You can sign up to get emails of comment thread updates, too.)

  4. James Joyner says:

    Steve,

    There’s some doubt on the part of military law scholars whether these comments rise to Article 88 violation. But they’re definitely stupid.

  5. Rick Almeida says:

    Also, I assume that Gen. Shinseki was under oath when he testified before Congress.

  6. TangoMan says:

    This is a no-win situation. Fire him and if the eventual outcome is bad, it will be seen as a personality issue. Do not fire him, and it promotes further insubordination and politicization of the officer corps. Hate to say it, but I think he should go, especially if Mattis agrees to replace him. I would get rid of Eikenberry also, since he pretty clearly has been less than professional.m,

    It’s a no-win situation of Obama’s own making. McCrystal’s comments are little different than the comments of Eikenberry, Biden, Gates, etc who all aired dirty laundry to the press and were not fired or reprimanded by Obama. When Obama allows internal policy debates to be played out in the press then McCrystal is at a disadvantage because of military regulations. This is a no-win situation because matters have escalated to the point where Rolling Stone is publishing this article. Absent escalation there would not have been a no-win situation to contend with. Managerial incompetence on Obama’s part is the root cause of this problem.

    That said though Obama is indeed stuck with a no-win situation. He fired the theater commander in order to advance McCrystal in his place. That reflects poorly on Obama being a good judge of character. If the response is that character wasn’t of paramount importance and competence for the task at hand was the deciding factor, then that rationale makes it difficult to fire McCrystal in that generals with his skill set are not easy to find. Secondly, if McCrystal felt, mistakenly, that he had enough lee-way to criticize his political colleagues and chain of command while he was in the military what would an unleashed McCrystal be capable of? Is it better to have McCrystal in the tent pissing out or outside the tent pissing in? Thirdly, Obama is committed to commence troop reductions in Afghanistan next year so a change of command and the ensuing change of tactical methods and operational plans in mid-game are quite likely to severely screw with the political timetable.

  7. sam says:

    It wasn’t the general so much as his staff, and that’s his problem:

    “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.”

    I’m afraid the general might have to pay for that disdain.

  8. TangoMan says:

    Will look into the comment feeds. I didn’t know I had them to begin with! (You can sign up to get emails of comment thread updates, too.)

    They disappeared last week. Before your redesign you had an option to subscribe to a comment feed for each posting at the bottom of the post. After the redesign we have to go to the address bar to click on the feed button. Until last week there were three option, 1.) subscribe to OTB feed, 2.) subscribe to aggregate comment feed, and 3.) subscribe to the comment feed for the particular post that you are currently viewing.

  9. sam says:

    @Tangoman

    “McCrystal’s comments are little different than the comments of Eikenberry, Biden, Gates, etc who all aired dirty laundry to the press and were not fired or reprimanded by Obama.”

    The men you list are not serving military officers. And this is nonsense:

    “Managerial incompetence on Obama’s part is the root cause of this problem.”

    The root cause of this problem is the inability of serving military officers to keep their mouths shut.

  10. June bug says:

    This is a case of apples and oranges. General Shinseki did what he was required to do – stated his opinion on troop requirements for success in Iraq when asked by a member of an appropriate Congressional oversight committee. Also, he was speaking of the prospect of war – we were not yet in one in Iraq.

    General McChrystal talked stink about the civilians to whom he and his “Team America” report, in the middle of a war whose strategy he is charged with implementing.

    Also, in case anyone forgot, General Shinseki was not reappointed as Army Chief of Staff and he retired in June, 2003 after the Iraq invasion.

  11. TangoMan says:

    Sam,

    TangoMan: “McCrystal’s comments are little different than the comments of Eikenberry, Biden, Gates, etc who all aired dirty laundry to the press and were not fired or reprimanded by Obama.”

    Sam: The men you list are not serving military officers.

    Do you really think that you’re making a point here when the next sentence I wrote made the exact point you just made? Why did you exclude my next sentence with your selective quotation? Here is what I wrote:

    It’s a no-win situation of Obama’s own making. McCrystal’s comments are little different than the comments of Eikenberry, Biden, Gates, etc who all aired dirty laundry to the press and were not fired or reprimanded by Obama. When Obama allows internal policy debates to be played out in the press then McCrystal is at a disadvantage because of military regulations.

  12. sam says:

    If you’ve read the RS piece, you’d know that it was not McChystal’s comments that have ignited all this, but those of his staff. And I fundamentally disagree with you slant. A serving military officer is not disadvantaged by the the legal and customary requirement that he or she refrain from criticizing civilians (and, by implication, civilian-established policy) upward of him or her in the chain of command: That is part of what it means to be a officer in the armed forces of the United States. If you find that confining, resign and then shoot your mouth off.

  13. steve says:

    Military officers do not have free speech. That is part of the deal and one with which I agree. Civilian control of the military is one of our most important founding principles. The dirty laundry you list about the other guys is routine politics in DC. You may or may not like it, but it is how things are done. TBH, though my memory is not perfect, I do not remember any of those guys leaking anything like a personal attack. They were policy differences.

    “makes it difficult to fire McCrystal in that generals with his skill set are not easy to find.”

    Not that hard. I would have preferred Mattis all along, but then I met the guy once long ago. However, a lot of people, especially Petraeus, supported him. When it comes to implementing a COIN operation, which looked like where we were heading, I would place his recommendation at the top. In retrospect, that now looks like a mistake, not because of incompetence, but insubordination and, frankly indiscretion. Drinking on a bus with a reporter you dont know very well?

    While I think you see this as a political issue, and it is, this is a much deeper issue for me. McMaster made it clear in his book Dereliction Of Duty, then when flag officers place their career goals or the goals of their individual units ahead of of duty to country, to the mission and to their men we are in trouble. I believe that we teach the seven core values for a reason, loyalty, duty, service, honor, integrity, respect and courage, and I expect officers to live up to those. So, mostly I am deeply disappointed.

    Steve

  14. bains says:

    Sorry James, but you ignore a key point. As with most of the media, you mire yourself in minutia, but only when it is convenient. The same media that was calling for Bush’s head when he did not re-appoint Shenseki is the same media that is screaming for McCrystal’s firing.

    It is not the actions of various administrations, their players, and their critics/whistle-blowers, it is how predictability biased the media are in covering these incidents.

  15. TangoMan says:

    While I think you see this as a political issue, and it is, this is a much deeper issue for me.

    I’m not disagreeing with you. I would have thought that a soldier who had risen to the rank of 4 star general would have long ago accepted the wisdom of military regulations on behavior, lack of ability to speak freely, the chain of command, civilian control, etc. I too see this as a deep personal failing on McCrystal’s part. None of this though absolves Obama from the criticism that is directed at his management incompetence. He is the President and Commander in Chief and as CIC he should be getting the backs of his military subordinates rather than letting them hang out to dry from the attacks of his political subordinates. Obama let a bad environment develop and fester. McCrystal acted out of turn when he shouldn’t have but did so as a response to the environment he was in. If McCrystal is to be held responsible for the behavior of his subordinates and for creating the conditions in which they could shoot their mouths off so freely, then the CIC must also be held responsible for the environment he tolerated, if not created.

    Not that hard. I would have preferred Mattis all along, but then I met the guy once long ago.

    If McCrystal ain’t all that, then that simplifies the decision to can him. I’m not well versed in the minutia of this topic so I won’t press this point. My impression was that McCrystal was highly regarded and was an innovative thinker on COIN and that was why the other general was relieved of command and McCrystal was parachuted in. Again, if McCrystal’s skill set was not unique then it reflects poorly on Obama’s decision to fire one general and replace him with McCrystal rather than a general who possessed the same skill set and wasn’t a loose cannon and didn’t foster an environment amongst his subordinates which ran counter to proper military protocol.

  16. steve says:

    Without getting too detailed, in the early Iraq years McChrystal was the embodiment of anti-COIN theory. He tried to kill his way to victory, he probably had people tortured and generally alienated the population. It didnt work and things kept getting worse. Petraeus took over and, generally, COIN was accepted and practiced.

    McChrystal was seen as a very talented general who had become a living example of how accepting COIN could work. COIN is counterintuitive in many ways and is hard on the troops. The restrictive ROE are disliked by many. Since McChrystal had worked with Petraeus, he was seen as more likely to be able to carry out an intensive COIN campaign then McKiernan who was seen as less innovative (rightly or wrongly.) In retrospect, he was a bad choice and Obama is responsible. I am not sure how this could have been predicted, but the commander is responsible for his troops.

    Steve

  17. The Q says:

    In third grade I learned as valuable a life lesson as anything subsequent, viz. when in a fight that you know is inevitable, you do one of two things:

    1. Hit first, hit hardest, hit longest.

    2. If you are not 100% committed to point #1, run the fuc*k as fast as you can outta there and
    live to fight another day.

    The worst thing you can do is get into a fight without being fully committed, for surely you WILL get your ass kicked.

    The main point not mentioned about Shinseki’s testimony (lost to all you right wing loons who want to politicize everything to destroy Obama) is that he was quoting what is military gospel when it comes to occupying and pacifying an enemy, namely, the ratio of troop levels to population.

    After the WWar 2, few if any U.S. soldiers were shot at or kiiled by the Japanese or Germans.

    Why? I think after fire bombings of Dresden, Berlin, and the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was no fight left and we had millions of Allied troops in conquered territory to maintain order.

    If the right winger were/are serious about destroying the “terrorists” they could have pulled an FDR – tax millionaires at 90%, institute a draft. etc. – i.e. total commitment.

    Instead we got Rummy and Tommy Franks fouling things up beyond belief…..Rummy wanting to show the dominance of air power in the “New” Pentagon strategy ( initially wanting to use only 50k troops to prove his point) and Tommy the ass licker who went along with this pathetic strategy.

    Shinseki said force levels needed to be 300k – 400k to maintain order. Of course Wolfowitz (“the war will be self financed by oil revenue from Iraq” ) and Cheney (“we know without doubt Saddam has WMDs”) didn’t want to tell the truth to the America people so Shinseki was forced to “resign”.

    The Russians killed a million Afganis and still lost.

    We need to kill two million then or three to win…..or we should get the fu*ck out.

    I think the strategy of COIN is correct, trying to do it with 40k troops won’t cut it.

    We have the dilemma I posited in my first paragraphs – when in a fight, you either go all in, or get out.

    We have the worst of situations in Afgh. – we aren’t all in and we don’t want to run – hence, quagmire and we are getting are asses kicked.

    The last “war” we got right was Gulf War 1, when we followed the Powell (and my own third grade) Doctrine – overwhelming force where you throw everything at the enemy AND the kitchen sink.

    We had 500,000 coalition troops amassed and the war was over in a week.

    Before Rummy was Sec of Def. he was a Board member at RAND in Santa Monica, where the consensus was that Rummy was a pompous, condescending asshole.

    It seems that McChrystal shares some of those traits and it got him fired.