McChrystal's White House Criticism Complicates War

The top general's days could be numbered

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Washington is reeling today from a Rolling Stone magazine profile of General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, which portrays him as sharply critical of his overseers in the White House and his diplomatic partner, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. You can download the article here. President Obama has called McChrystal, who issued an apology, to the White House on Wednesday to explain his comments. Personal strife within an administration is never a good thing, but this episode could be especially damaging. Here's why.

  • The Article's Damaging Quotes Most come from McChrystal's staffers, who say McChrystal was "pretty disappointed" in Obama, who they call unprepared to discuss the war and "uncomfortable and intimidated" in planning meetings. McChrystal jokes at one point, "Are you asking about Vice President Biden? Who's that?" One staffer calls National Security Adviser Jim Jones a "clown." McChrystal says of Ambassador Eikenberry, "Here's one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, 'I told you so.'" An aide says of Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to be fired, so that makes him dangerous."
  • Pre-Existing Suspicion Between McChrystal and White House The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explains, "Even though McChrystal voted for Obama and told him so during their first meeting, he sensed that a number of senior White House aides didn't really believe that the former commander of the military's special missions unit during the Bush-Cheney years was suddenly on their side. National Security Adviser James Jones, who is a bit of cipher to McChrystal's team, may or may not have been one of these aides. No one in the West Wing bought all that liberal internet chatter about JSOC's alleged crimes -- but no one really didn't buy it, either." Ambinder says of McChrystal, "He was tired of being perceived in the press as a neoconservative killer, Dick Cheney's hired assassin, or disloyal to President Obama and his staff."
  • Unfortunate Distraction Will Hurt Everyone Andrew Exum, a former adviser to McChrystal who was interviewed for the Rolling Stone article, sighs, "Folks on the left are going to be screaming for POTUS to sack McChrystal for insubordination, and folks from the right are going to seize on this as evidence the Obama Administration is screwing up the war and not supporting his generals. Meanwhile, in Kabul, you have a commander dealing with a mess (that he made for himself, it must be said) that has nothing do with the Taliban or Afghan corruption."
  • Fallout Will Be Mostly Political The New York Times' Dexter Filkins writes, "The article does not portray any serious policy differences with Mr. Obama, who chose General McChrystal to take charge of a major escalation of American troops and materiel, in hopes of reversing the deteriorating situation here. Still, the piece seems destined to raise questions about General McChrystal's judgment, and to spark debate over the wisdom of Mr. Obama's strategy, at a time when violence in the country is rising sharply and when several central planks of the strategy appear stalled. Two important American allies, the Dutch and Canadians, have announced plans to pull their combat troops from the country."
  • This Has Precedents  The Wall Street Journal's Peter Spiegel writes, "The article, titled 'The Runaway General,' has already caused nervousness inside the Pentagon, where memories are still fresh of another blistering profile that got a top commander in hot water: an August 2008 cover story in Esquire on Adm. William 'Fox' Fallon, then commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article eventually played a part in Fallon's resignation two years ago."
  • Will McChrystal Be Fired?  The Washington Independent's Spencer Ackerman doubts it. "It's perilous for Obama to fire McChrystal now, with only a year remaining before the July 2011 date for beginning to transition to Afghan security responsibilities and consequently beginning troop reductions. But it's going to be on McChrystal to repair the trust with the White House this profile has clearly damaged. If McChrystal keeps his command, that Rolling Stone reporter got the general's last big interview."
  • ...He Should Be  Central Asia expert Joshua Foust writes, "Basically, either Obama or McChrystal are going down over this. It should be McChrystal - he broke the law. Obama needs to fire him. The issue is a uniformed general mocking the vice president. That is a direct violation of Article 88 of the UCMJ. He should not be allowed to continue to serve after that lapse of judgment/insubordination. Kandahar or no, if McChrystal gets to keep his job after publicly mocking the VP, he has shown he is untouchable."
  • ...But He Won't Be  The American Prospect's Adam Serwer writes, "Prediction: Left calls for McChrystal firing for insubordination, Obama wins back manly pundit love by punching hippies in the face. Substantive question of why general thinks he should be getting open-ended deadline to fight war americans want over will go unaddressed."
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