July 1, 2010
It was every reporter's dream: to write a small article that brings down a big guy. Not only that, but an easy article to boot: Do a little background research, summarize others' previous reportage and publicly available documents, interview your subject, his wife, and his aides, have a few beers with them to glean some loose-lipped quotes (expletives undeleted), and tie it all together in 8,000 very readable words. No need to invoke the Freedom of Information Act, no need to face jail for refusing to name names, no Deep Throat. Can't beat it.
The reporter himself, Michael Hastings, probably had no idea that his piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, published in Rolling Stone magazine last week, would have the effect it did: the summary dismissal of the architect of allied military policy in Afghanistan. The Big Guy was gone before the hard copies hit the newsstands.
If you haven't read Hastings' story, read it. You'll see that there's virtually nothing in there that you didn't already know or suspect: that there is widespread disagreement within the administration and the military over how to conduct the operation in Afghanistan; that there is open contention between the military and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and National Security Adviser Jim Jones; that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a corrupt and capricious ally; that many troops bitterly complain that McChrystal's policy of avoiding civilian casualties has left them vulnerable to Taliban attacks; that last spring's incursion into Marja, the test-case for the McChrystal counterinsurgency plan — "clear, build, hold, transfer" — has become, in the General's own words, a "bleeding ulcer."
It's all common knowledge. How could a story like this have had a result like that?
The answer lies not in the collection of facts but in Hastings' engaging profile of McChrystal that, almost entirely by inference, makes the general look big and the president look small.
Ostensibly, Obama fired McChrystal to maintain a united front in the conduct of the war. "I believe," Obama stated when he accepted the general's resignation, "that this mission demands unity of effort across our alliance and across my national security team. ... I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division."
I'm not quite sure what's the difference between debate and division, but Hastings' article succinctly showed that the "team" is about as dysfunctional as the French World Cup soccer squad. Indeed, the coach and his star player seem like the only ones sharing the same page; after all, the counterinsurgency strategy was McChrystal's idea, and Obama gave him almost everything and everybody he asked for to attempt it. Obama has long tried to present himself as the picture of confidence, in control of things Afghan, but the fact is that there are too many variables out there for anyone to be in control.
What really stuck in Obama's craw was that one little line in the article, where McChrystal (according to unnamed sources) "thought Obama looked ‘uncomfortable and intimidated' by the roomful of military brass" in his first meeting with them after the inauguration.
That's it? Sure, across the article the general and those unnamed sources shot their mouths off, but the words come across as griping, what all soldiers do, not as insubordination, conduct that in Obama's words "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."
A lot has been made about Obama's "Truman moment," but analogies with the dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur are thin. MacArthur repeatedly upbraided Truman in the press for supposed faint-heartedness and "appeasement" in not escalating the Korean War into mainland China, but far beyond personal insults, he committed a truly undermining act of insubordination in going over the president's head with his own communiqué to China, threatening an invasion. By contrast, Obama himself on Dismissal Day acknowledged that "Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully." Just as McChrystal, to his credit, is no MacArthur, so Obama is no Truman.
What McChrystal's firing really demonstrates is just how deeply disarrayed the situation in Afghanistan is. McChrystal was the scapegoat, symbolically bearing the whole sorry mess into the wilderness. But the illusion of unity evaporated into the summer air of the Rose Garden as soon as the words left the president's lips.
About the only ones to benefit are Michael Hastings and Rolling Stone. Despite the dire predictions about the death of journalism, the press, or whatever we should call it nowadays, can still bring down the big guys.