The beatdown of General McChrystal continued over the weekend with the political and pundit class denouncing the general and in typically hyperbolic terms.
Boston University military historian Andrew J. Bacevich, for instance, somehow found within this brouhaha “an officer corps that is losing its bearings…
“The responsibility facing the American people is clear,” Bacevich thundered in the Sunday Washington Post. “They need to reclaim ownership of their Army.” Otherwise, he warned, “the damage to the army and to American democracy will be severe.”
Maybe if McChrystal and his staff really had been insubordinate, Bacevich would have a point. But in truth, they have not been, as even President Obama himself has acknowledged.
“Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully” [emphasis added], Obama said last Wednesday.
Oh, but that doesn’t matter, because, we are told, even though the General and his aides saluted smartly and did not in any way undermine the president’s policies, McChrystal nonetheless created an adversarial “command climate.” And, according to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, this adversarial command climate “was at best disrespectful of civilian authority.”
By all accounts, McChrystal and his staff were absolute models of professionalism and soldierly virtue when dealing with the White House, Congress, the State Department, et al. No one has suggested otherwise.
Yet, a few mildly critical comments uttered privately within the confines of their workspace and caught by Rolling Stone magazine are being cited as legitimate reasons for McChrystal’s dismissal. But what is missing from most analysis of this issue is any sense of proportion. McChrystal is being charged, in effect, with a public affairs felony when, in reality, he is guilty, at worst, of a minor traffic violation.
Indeed, as Peter Worthington points out in “An Unnecessary Firing” here at FrumForum:
The unidentified quotes in the Rolling Stone article that were snarky about many of the people around Obama, and on whom Obama depends, were not by McChrystal, and had the flavor of a bunch of guys sounding off over a beer.
They were the sort of cracks about management that happen in every office.
That’s exactly right. Only the good-natured and jocular banter between and amongst McChrystal and his staff was recorded, apparently, by Rolling Stone magazine and placed in the worst possible light. But as David Frum has observed:
The people at Facebook are right: We’re all going to enjoy less privacy in future. There are two obvious responses to that change. Either we all turn into tight-lipped self-protecting careerists in every waking hour, never emitting an untoward remark, never repeating an improper joke — or else we’re all going to have to develop a much greater tolerance for normal human indiscretion, sarcasm, flippancy and political incorrectness.
We all know that people sometimes ventilate in private. They say things in the moment that do not reflect their considered or settled opinion. They are uncharitable, irritable, sarcastic, over-emphatic. If those remarks can appear in public at any time, as it seems they can, we all need to develop some new willingness to judge the careless words of others as we would wish to have our own careless words judged.
A more charitable political and pundit class would have understood all this and responded accordingly. It would have properly discounted the remarks uttered by McChrystal and his aides as little more than harmless venting and blowing off steam.
Instead, the political and pundit class rose up — and almost in unison and in high dudgeon — and demanded McChrystal’s scalp. His dismissal, we were lectured, was a test of the president’s mettle. Obama’s manhood and leadership were on the line.
It’s instructive, then, to consider what a truly great leader, Abraham Lincoln, did when faced with a genuinely insolent commanding general during the Civil War: He simply ignored the behavior, says historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Indeed, she writes:
For months during the Civil War, Lincoln chose to ignore insolent behavior by Gen. George McClellan, who served at times as the commander of the Army of the Potomac and the general in chief of the Union Army, arguing that his breaches of protocol were worth tolerating as long as he was exerting a positive influence on his forces.
Obama, by contrast, can’t abide a commanding general who expresses his disappointment at the president’s lack of substantive preparation for their first meeting together? Give me a break. We are, are we not, defining insolence and insubordination down?
Here’s what Obama should have said last Wednesday:
Look, I know that General McChrystal and his staff are under enormous pressure. They’re working 18-to-20-hour days and doing everything that they can to ensure we win in Afghanistan.
And like all the rest of us, they sometimes say things about their colleagues they’d rather not see reported in the newspaper. I don’t take offense. My priority is to succeed on the battlefield.
In all of their interactions with me and my staff, after all, the general and his aides have been extremely professional and deferential. They know, understand and respect the chain of command and also the principle of civilian control of the military. I know that and my administration knows that. And that’s what counts: their public conduct, not their private musings.
I’m sure if you came into the White House and listened to some of our banter, you could probably do much the same thing: find indiscreet comments, shine a light on them, and make us look bad.
But I’m not interested in making people look bad. I’m interested in winning in Afghanistan. And General McChrystal is my man. He’s my general, and a superb one at that. We need him at the helm for this important fight that lies ahead.
Had Obama said this he rightly would have been hailed for his magnanimity and grand sense of purpose. But in truth, the president is likely thin-skinned and probably insecure in his role as commander-in-chief. Thus, there was, during this brouhaha, no Lincoln in him and, therefore, no Lincoln moment. How disappointing and sad.