What General McChrystal's Comments Really Tell Us

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Gen. McChrystal met with President Obama aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen, October 2009. Pete Souza / White House-AP

Perhaps it’s the heat.  The career of the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, may be in jeopardy after early leaks from an article scheduled to appear in Rolling Stone later this week. McChrystal and/or various unnamed aides reportedly dis the president, the vice president, the president's national-security adviser, his special envoy to the region, and the American ambassador in Kabul. As McChrystal flies to Washington, summoned to the White House to explain himself in person at the president's monthly update meeting on Afghanistan—which by chance comes on Wednesday—he’ll have time to reflect. He may recall that it was a March 2008 magazine interview that brought an end to the career of Adm. William J. Fallon, head of Central Command, of which McChrystal's Afghanistan forces are a part. Perhaps it’s the heat. It's certainly hubris.
Fallon allowed himself to go on the record suggesting that only he stood between President George W. Bush and war with Iran. It's not clear what precise beef McChrystal has with President Bush's successor. But he and his staff clearly feel embattled and unappreciated in the dust and bombs and frustrations of Afghanistan, and they were angry enough to mouth off to a reporter.   
It may sound perverse to call a four-star general naive. "Unversed" might be a better word. McChrystal's career was in Special Forces. In that shadowy world, he was sheltered from the apprenticeship that most upwardly mobile officers get in dealing with the media—a rough-and-tumble training in what to say, what not to say, and whom to say it to.

McChrystal emerged blinking in the glare of publicity only when he got the Afghanistan job last year. He promptly tripped up: in a Q&A session after a speech to a defense think tank in London, McChrystal made comments that trespassed on the Afghanistan policy review then preoccupying Obama. A stern session with the president followed. McChrystal kept his job, though he was urged to pay more heed to his media adviser. "Stan doesn't know enough to come in out of the rain," one retired Army four-star said at the time. Now the media adviser has resigned, and McChrystal is heading for another uncomfortable session with Obama—this time, perhaps, a victim of something more insidious than naiveté.  
Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a brief statement saying: "I believe that Gen. McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgement in this case." McChrystal, he said, was apologizing to everyone who appeared in the Rolling Stone piece. Not bothering to hide his exasperation, Gates said that "our singular focus must be on . . . succeeding in Afghanistan without such distractions."

The article may prove more than a passing distraction.   

Generals may have tense relations with political leaders: think McClellan and Lincoln. Generals may even have acrid views of the actions and abilities of their civilian superiors: through World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill's top military adviser regularly fumed about how impossible Churchill was (though Gen. Alan Brooke wisely confined those thoughts to the diary he penned nightly as a way of letting off steam). Generals may even disagree with policies the civilian leadership has set, and seek—discreetly—to lobby for change.   
What's essential is a public atmosphere of mutual respect between the civilian and military leaderships. Generals demand that political leaders respect their professional expertise. In return, it's expected that generals understand the multiple pressures weighing on their civilian leaders, and respect—even if they don't agree with—whatever compromises these pressures dictate. The system can cope with almost anything, so long as both sides understand the role and responsibilities of the other. But the extracts from the Rolling Stone account suggest that among McChrystal's headquarters staff, that respect has broken down. It's perturbing that McChrystal and his aides are apparently so contemptuous of senior figures in the White House. That's far more worrying than the naivete that led them to voice their thoughts to a visiting reporter. In military parlance, the "command climate" in the general's headquarters suggests that a gulf has opened between Washington and McChrystal on what's possible in Afghanistan.