For a few days last week, the harpies of the extreme right assaulted the president of the United States for first considering, and then firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan.
In a 10-day interview with Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, McChrystal and his senior aides poked fun or criticized almost every civilian in the highest levels of the chain of command, including the President, Vice-President, and National Security Advisor James L. Jones, former Marine Corps commandant who, an aide told the magazine, was a “clown.” Another aide told Hastings that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) “turn up, have a meeting with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.”
Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and almost the entire tea bag movement supported McChrystal. They screeched that it was not McChrystal who should be fired but Obama for his war strategy. That would be the same strategy that was designed and executed by—Gen. McChrystal.
This wasn’t the first time McChrystal was out of line. Previously, he tried to box in Obama. His tactic was not to be a part of a vigorous discussion with other military leaders and the Commander-in-Chief about the strategy in Afghanistan. He decided to just go to the media and “tell all,” essentially begging the President to significantly increase troop presence in Afghanistan and widen the war, which has now lasted more than eight years. This is also the same general who we now know was one of the major players in covering up the cause of the death of former NFL millionaire star Pat Tillman who became an Army Ranger, and then was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. This is also the general who was in command of a task force that had 34 of its members disciplined for prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.
McChrystal wasn’t about to get any sympathy from his superiors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who had served George W. Bush prior to being asked to stay by President Obama, said that McChrystal “made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.” Adm. Mike Mullen, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also supported the firing. But, it was the words of three leading senators who should have provided the beacon to the unenlightened of the reactionary right. In a joint statement, the senators said they had “the highest respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and sacrifice to our nation,” but that his comments were “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between Commander-in-Chief and the military.” The three senators, all known hawks, were Joe Lieberman, an Independent; and Republicans John McCain, a former Navy captain; and Lindsey Graham, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.
For his part, Gen. McChrystal knew he was out of line. “I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said, and noted that he believed that in his 34-year military career, he “lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity [and what] is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.”
Of course, the attacking force on the right flank, who were silent when the Bush–Cheney administration choked the First Amendment rights of civilians, put both their brain cells together and claimed Obama was stifling free speech. Here’s some constitutional law that will enlighten even the dimmest bulb. Freedom of speech, by law, does not extend to the military. That applies to privates as well as generals. The extreme right, which has proven embarrassing to true conservatives and the Republican party itself, apparently overlooked the fact that George W. Bush, while President, fired or marginalized senior officers for disagreeing with civilian policy. Gen. Peter Pace, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not get a usual second term after he not only challenged the Bush–Cheney Administration on its stand about torture and on Administration claims, later proven to be false, that Iran was supplying munitions to Iraqi insurgents. Sealing his fate, however, was his public belief that gays were immoral. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s Chief of Staff, had bluntly told the Senate Armed Forces committee in a mandated appearance that there were significant problems with the Bush–Cheney–Rumsfeld plan for the forthcoming invasion of Iraq. He retired without the customary recognition by civilian leadership. Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Central Command, was terminated for challenging the Bush–Cheney strategy that might have led to war with Iran. The reality that Shinseki and Fallon were eventually proven to be right was of little consequence. The President, in his role as Commander-in-Chief, has authority to discipline his senior officers for disagreeing with him, even privately.
While President Obama, perhaps more than most of his predecessors, encourages debate and vigorous discussion, he couldn’t have a field commander publically disagreeing with him. McChrystal’s statements, said the President, represent conduct that “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” It was a concept fully supported by Gen. George Washington before and during his presidency.
When the right-wing got tired of attacking President Obama, they attacked the messenger. Rolling Stone, they shrieked, wasn’t even a good magazine. Gen. McChrystal shouldn’t even have been talking to it. It was—you know—an entertainment magazine, thus proving how little they truly know about the media or journalism.
The 24/7 cable news networks, ecstatic that they had a brief diversion from the Gulf Coast oil spill and athletes not kicking soccer balls into nets, for their part brought in all kinds of experts to spew opinions that sometimes seemed to make the pundits look brilliant by comparison.
Somehow in all this orgasmic hyperbole, Fox’s Gretchen Carlson told the “Fox and Friends” audience that being president involves making “these tough, huge, monumental decisions.” But then she explained that the work of TV anchors—the real journalists, apparently—was similar to that of the president of the United States, since they have to make decisions on breaking news stories under near-battlefield conditions all the time, and “they would have to carry a story all along.” This is the same news anchor who called Ted Kennedy a “hostile enemy” and whose own combat experience was restricted to fighting with double-sided tape to hold her swim suit intact during the Miss America competition.
There is no question that President Obama needed to relieve Gen. McChrystal of his command or risk appearing to be weak and ineffective during wartime. But there are other realities. The extreme right wing, blinded by their venomous hatred of President Obama, used the words of Gen. McChrystal to bolster their attacks upon the President. The left-wing, already upset with the expansion of the war, piously screamed their support of the President, but only if he got rid of the “troublemaker.”
Lost in the war of words is the reality of who and what Stanley McChrystal is. He is a loyal American who grew up in a military family and who has siblings and in-laws who also were career soldiers. He is, by training and disposition, not a diplomat but a warrior, the kind you want on the front lines of any war. He was obviously frustrated by the lack of progress in Afghanistan, by a war that seemed to be doomed to failure no matter whose strategy was used, by an Afghani army and a civilian population that was easily compromised by warlords and the Taliban, by a country whose cash crop isn’t grain but opium.
McChrystal understands the military system; he has little understanding of civilians and the media. Perhaps in the field, he and his senior aides would have been more cautious than on a diplomatic mission in Paris and Berlin hotels and nightclubs, areas that invaded their comfort zone. He was poorly prepared and ill-advised about being so open when talking to a reporter who had a notepad, a tape recorder, and made clear the rules of the interview. For a junior officer to make these mistakes is understandable; but, a four-star general should have known better. And that, not his words, was his downfall.
[Among Walter Brasch’s 17 books are Sinking the Ship of State, an investigation of the Bush–Cheney administration; and Sex and the Single Beer Can, a humorous and sometimes sarcastic look into the mass media. Both are available at amazon.com and other stores.]