Patriot General McChrystal Just Made a Serious Mistake, That’s All

Some conservative pundits now believe that General McChrystal deliberately sacrificed his job to send an important message to America — reasoning that General McChrystal actually saw the Rolling Stone article in advance, and that, well, he would never be really that stupid unless he had a larger purpose.  I disagree.

First, if you actually read the Rolling Stone article, it’s just not so inflammatory as media paraphrases of it suggested.  McChrystal himself did not, I believe, say anything “insubordinate.” Read the Rolling Stone story carefully.  The most serious comments from McChrystal were “according to sources” — i.e., not McChrystal himself.  His aides were definitely out of line, and he is responsible for that kind of undisciplined permissiveness among his aides.  But their comments were the incendiary ones, not McChrystal’s.  McChrystal takes a very mild swipe at Joe Biden — “Vice President Biden? Who’s that?”  Ha Ha.  But who in America, including Democrats, including President Obama, doesn’t take swipes at Jo(k)e Biden??

Second, reports several days later indicated that while McChrystal himself stayed appropriately silent, some of his aides insisted they were “betrayed” by Rolling Stone magazine, and that much of the objectionable material was said in a setting that they had insisted was strictly “off the record.”  “Off the record” is a very familiar rule in journalism.  It means you get to hear us speak candidly, but you cannot quote, attribute, use, or even paraphrase anything you hear from us.  This rejoinder from McChrystal’s aides does not sound consistent with a general intending what happened.  And by the way, the charge of “betrayal” by his aides is plausible to me, because many of the objectionable statements occurred at a Paris bar, with much drinking, during the General’s wedding anniversary celebration — and anyone in the military who would fail to say to any journalist, as to such a setting, “this is strictly off the record,” would be guilty of unconscionable stupidity.  (Putting aside the bad judgment of granting so much access to a Rolling Stone magazine in the first place.)  So I think they allowed the Rolling Stone reporter to accompany them (bad decision) so he could see their “fun” side, and insisted that anything said would be strictly off the record, and the reporter simply failed to honor that promise.

Third, yes Rolling Stone, in the course of fact-checking, ran certain parts of the article past the General and his staff.  But they did so very selectively.  As the Washington Post reported, “30 questions that a Rolling Stone fact-checker posed in a memo e-mailed last week to then-McChrystal media adviser Duncan Boothby contained no hint of what became the controversial portions of the story. Boothby resigned Tuesday.”  And that is how the General got blind-sided.

Fourth, I think I understand why some conservative pundits refuse to believe that General McChrystal would have that magnitude of bad judgment, and so they look for a larger purpose.  But honestly, we’re all an inventory of strengths and weaknesses.  General McChrystal is a brilliant general — but his background is special ops — that is, the people who are shadows, the people who never show up in the media because if they do they have failed.  So General McChrystal may be a brilliant military tactician and strategist — but still be a media naif.  He had never been in such a role before, one that combined the highest tier of military strategy and the highest tier of political strategy AND the highest tier of media savvy.  So he thought he could “humanize” himself and his people through a popular media outlet in America.  Bad decision.  But media management was never his strength.

Fifth, if General McChrystal wanted to convey a message of this extraordinary importance to America, honestly, why not just resign and speak this message??  That’s direct.  That’s forthright.  That’s the military way.  Why pick, of all publications, Rolling Stone magazine as the vehicle for your critical message to America — and surrender control of the framing of your message to — Rolling Stone magazine?!

I get why General McChrystal may have been conflicted about being set up to fail in Afghanistan — that a temporary troop surge, coupled with a stupid deadline for troop withdrawal, was a recipe for failure, and he didn’t want that happening on his watch.  Okay.  Quit.  And say it.  THAT would have had an enormous impact — and not incidentally probably made him a permanent hero to Americans who support our mission in Afghanistan.  Why suffer the enormous indignity of an unflattering Rolling Stone article AND getting fired by President Obama to convey this message?  It makes no sense.

And by the way, you want to know about a truly egregious rupture in military-civilian relations?  It happened to Richard Nixon.  Read it here.

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