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The Unceremonious Firing of General Stanley McChrystal

By Adil James, MMNS

2010-06-23T190922Z_682157260_GM1E66O08TI01_RTRMADP_3_OBAMA McChrystal was fired not because he spoke disparagingly of President Obama, or because he was insubordinate.  He was fired because he got in over his head.

Was it an Act of God?  The journalist who stayed with McChrystal’s staff, Michael Hastings, was supposed to stay for only one day, but then was forced by the Iceland volcano eruption to stay with McChrystal’s staff for a month–in unguarded circumstances and conversations that would lead to the ends of many of McChrystal’s associates’ careers.

McChyrstal, despite his glowing reputation, had a dark past.  He oversaw the cover-up of the Pat Tillman killing, and more importantly was implicated by Human Rights Watch for abuse and torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq.

That’s right, abuse and torture.  In fact the Tillman story is a nice segue into the Camp Nama abuse, since McChrystal himself said that there was no way the Red Cross would ever be allowed through the door at Nama (presumably because there was so much evidence of abuse there that the Red Cross couldn’t help but trip over it).

There are some misconceptions about the Rolling Stone article–it did not display any disobedience or insubordination against President Obama, other than the political maneuvering.  In fact it documents McChrystal’s having voted for Obama. 

McChrystal did say that he thought Obama looked intimidated by the military brass.  Probably this was true.  Obama is not a military man.  It is doubtful that during his social organizing days in Chicago, or at Harvard, or on the campaign trail, or in Hawaii, he used to hang out in bars with uniformed marines and soldiers.

But despite his lack of military experience, Obama seems to value his image as a tough guy very much.  In fact he has a lot of personal grit–he gave the order to shoot the Somali pirates, after all.

Obama met with Bill O’Reilly, the bully of the right wing news media, who himself seemed impressed.  “He’s not a wimp,” he said.  O’Reilly, who likes to physically intimidate interviewees and threaten to beat them up, seemed swayed by Obama’s personal toughness.

In fact Obama has displayed his toughness again and again.  His handling of McChrystal shows it also–perhaps he is tough to a fault.  The disposal of McChrystal could have been dealt with more quietly, without the pillories, and the extremely public walk-of-shame from Afghanistan to the White House axe.

Obama’s ego and his toughness were directly assaulted by McChrystal’s comment about his feeling intimidated by military brass, and still more directly affected by Michael Hastings’ words, “McChrystal, they felt, was trying to bully Obama, opening him up to charges of being weak on national security unless he did what the general wanted.  It was Obama versus the Pentagon, and the Pentagon was determined to kick the president’s ass.”

In fact to isolate the words that cost McChrystal his job, it was more likely those words above, written by Michael Hastings, rather than any words spoken on the record by General McChrystal himself.

Perhaps Obama fired McChrystal out of loyalty to his vice president? There was some contempt in the McChrystal ranks that reached Joe Biden, as evidenced by the article.  This contempt was likely founded on their opposing Biden’s arguments against the Afghan troop surge that McChrystal championed.

One underlying problem that the article laid bare was the fact that McChrystal had built a relationship with his close staffers that was long on camaraderie, drinking, and army bravado, and short on diplomacy or discipline.

The evidence of this was all of the asides by McChrystal staffers, “Bite-Me,” or “This is gay,” or “clown.” 

McChrystal can blame himself for that.  “Does this come with the position?” asked McChrystal as he gave his chief of staff the middle finger.

Maybe giving your buddies the finger is okay at West Point.  But to build leadership and trust, not the right way.  To build friendship, maybe.  To build respect, no.

McChrystal saying he’d rather be beaten up by a roomful of people than go to a meeting would be acceptable in other circumstances but perhaps not here in an important official post.  His comment that nobody could do it is just army bravado, encouraged in most branches of the military to a degree that is probably beyond what is helpful, or realistic.

If he and his staff took themselves seriously they wouldn’t name themselves “Team America,” after the movie created by the South Park writers–it might be funny but it is also fairly dishonorable given that nobody in that movie was particularly a role model.

Some argue that McChrystal was asking to be put out of his misery, because he already knows Afghanistan can’t be won.  He did refer to Marjah (a stepping stone towards the more important goal of wresting Kandahar from the Taliban) as a “bleeding ulcer,” months after it was supposed to have been subdued.  But with his bravado and his career, it does not seem likely that he destroyed himself to avoid a challenge.

Realistically, McChrystal and his staff were likely blind-sided by the Rolling Stone article.  Expecting a puff piece, they were actually all beaten up by Michael Hastings, the scrawny young reporter who was with them the night that General McChrystal said that “Unfortunately, nobody here could” beat him up.  In fact Hastings single-handedly beat up McChrystal and the roomful of people who were with him.

The essence of McChrystal’s problem was his playing politics.  McChrystal publicly displayed his impatience with Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke (pitting himself against Hillary Clinton); he pitted himself directly against Joe Biden (or at least his staff did); he fostered the American diplomatic ineptness in Afghanistan, for example by undermining Holbrooke, but also by his political battle with Ambassador Eikenberry, a retired Three-Star General who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2005 (and had been McChrystal’s boss)–McChrystal scuttled Eikenberry’s route to the powerful colonial sounding position of Viceroy in Afghanistan, which according to Hastings “would have made him the diplomatic equivalent of the general.” 

Aside from the political maneuvering, there is his handling of the troops–according to the article, at least one soldier, Michael Ingram, died because he and his comrades were not given permission to destroy an unoccupied house that was frequently used by the Taliban, including in the ambush that led to the death of Ingram.

McChrystal had fought hard to stop attacks against civilians, while also encouraging special forces to kill a lot–and in the language McChrystal uses in speaking with a Navy Seal it appears understood that some of that Seal’s targets would actually be innocent.

The death of Ingram, attributable to the rules of engagement, likely grated on Obama. 

The best friend McChrystal made in Afghanistan was perhaps Hamid Karzai, with whom he showed immense patience, waiting at Karzai’s beck and call as Karzai slept through the day at his palace in Kabul, the general begging for Karzai’s staff to wake him.

There were mistakes in McChrystal’s past that were likely gnawing at Obama, like the way he asked for thousands of soldiers, circumventing the chain of command; it is doubtful that the Tillman coverup or even the Nama abuses weighed in Obama’s decision-making.  But what most angered the president was likely McChrystal’s political maneuvering, the rules of engagement, and McChrystal and his staff’s apparent gross inappropriateness in a diplomatic role.

In fact the article demonstrates that McChrystal began to take the same liberties against his superiors that he had previously used against the nation’s enemies, interfering with their plans, disrupting their planning, fostering their weakness in order to make room for himself to operate.  Perhaps in reaction to all this Obama felt that the axe had to fall.


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