McChrystal ‘scandal’ is phony
Washington, D.C., is the world capital of phony. Even by Washington’s low standards, the Stanley McChrystal “scandal” now in progress gives phoniness a bad name.
Yes, General McChrystal showed poor judgment in making impolitic remarks on-the-record. But most of what the general said was simply being honest about the shabby aspects of government administration. McChrystal said a rival had leaked a memo to make McChrystal look bad. That’s exactly what happened! The general said he didn’t want to open an email from Richard Holbrooke, who is an accomplished diplomat, but also a haughty man known for condescending hectoring. No sane person wants to open an email from Richard Holbrooke. And General McChrystal pretended not to recognize Joe Biden’s name. People in Washington snipe at each other, stop the presses!
That’s it – the above comments are the super-ultra-mega scandal. Consider:
Nearly everything being attributed to McChrystal was not said by him. That President Barack Obama was “uncomfortable and intimidated” during his first meeting with McChrystal, that National Security Advisor James Jones is “a clown” – these comments did not come from McChrystal. In the Rolling Stone article they are sourced to an “advisor” and an “aide.”
Media coverage has already discarded this significant factual distinction – why let mere facts spoil a scandal? This morning, CBS Radio said the controversy involves “General McChrystal’s numerous attacks on public officials,” while CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr declared it “extraordinary to hear a general disparaging the president.” It is unnamed aides, NOT McChrystal, who disparage the president in the story. As for the statement that “the wimps in the White House” are “the real enemy” for officers in Afghanistan? That’s a Rolling Stone headline – no one in the story says this!
Bear in mind how convenient it is for Rolling Stone that the inflammatory material comes from people who don’t have names. Reporters and writers place words into the mouths of unnamed sources because people who aren’t identified rarely complain of being misquoted.
What is McChrystal quoted as saying? Of trying to sell the White House on a counterinsurgency strategy, which Jones and Vice President Joe Biden did not support, McChrystal is quoted as saying, “I found that time painful.” Stop the presses!
The scandal began before anyone had read the article. Rolling Stone’s issue is not on the stands until Friday, and the magazine did not post the piece on the Web until Tuesday evening East Coast time, after the three main network newscasts had given prominent attention to the buzz. The article turns out not to support the buzz. But in the Washington cycle of phoniness, who care about that?
Media figures are denouncing McChrystal for talking to the media. A lot of the commentariate reaction boils down to, “This guy was a fool for confiding in a reporter.” Apparently he was. But this line of reasoning does not say much about the media. Plus had General McChrystal refused to talk to a reporter, the media would have been outraged about that, too. Don’t reporters and editors regularly demand that the military be more open with the media?
The great thing about this scandal is that it has nothing to do with substance. There are no policy decisions in the balance, no questions of conscience – just personality sniping. Ideal! The Washington media and political establishments hate substance, while reveling in high-school-style bickering. Had the article involved impassioned appeals to conscience, it would have been ignored.
The other great thing is White House focus. The press loves stories that happen in the White House and involve the president because this generates a narrative of urgency. Will there be an angry confrontation? Will the president lose his cool in the Oval Office? Presidential drama, real or imagined, interests most of the media far more than question of substances, such as whether the United States should pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan (the McChrystal, and now Obama, position) or concentrate on destroying al Qaeda (what Biden and Jones favored). The Rolling Stone article concludes by declaring we have no hope of winning in Afghanistan. That is 10,000 times more important than any stupid snipe by an unnamed “aide.” But the article’s substantial point is nowhere in the scandal coverage. People arguing is a lot more interesting!
Why does the McChrystal-Tillman connection keep getting ignored? Stanley McChrystal was the officer who lied about the death, by friendly fire, of Pat Tillman. That Tillman died by friendly fire does not diminish his heroism. McChrystal lying about this, on the other hand, was shameful. He should have resigned when caught lying about Tillman; that was a serious breach of his officer’s honor. Yet the media are more interested in whether he insulted an ambassador.
Where was the press corps before all this happened? “The Promise,” an extraordinarily good new book, by Jonathan Alter, about Obama’s first year, goes into many pages of detail on tensions among McChrystal, Biden, Jones and Holbrooke regarding Afghanistan strategy. In order for that book to have been in stores last month, Alter had to complete the writing around Christmas. If Alter, who doesn’t even cover national security, knew last year that all this was going on, maybe that means he’s a great reporter – but it also means a lot of other reporters have been asleep at the switch.
The fitting punishment for McChrystal would have been to make him keep his job. Firing McChrystal makes President Obama seem weak — afraid of criticism, reacting in knee-jerk style, basing important national decisions on a Rolling Stone article. What Obama should have done is punch McChrystal in the nose. That is sometimes how moments of stress such as this get worked out within the military.
McChrystal’s comments, and those from his mysterious aides, reflect the way many military men and women talk, especially after consuming beer. It is common for military personnel who are risking their lives to feel hostility about pompous civilians who pamper themselves in Washington. This is fine so long as they always obey their orders from civilians – as U.S. military men and women always do. When the hour is dark, the United States needs tough-minded military personnel. That we seemed shocked to hear a fairly tame version of how they talk among themselves shows how out of contact much of America is with its armed forces.