I draw the following conclusions from this sorry episode. In relieving General McChrystal of his command, President Obama was right, given the mess the Rolling Stone’s article presented him. I can’t even imagine how the President would have been eviscerated if he had kept the general in his post. General McChrystal did exercise poor judgment, and a considerable sense of entitlement, as well as a poorly developed sense of personal survival in the snake pit the media has become. And Rolling Stone Magazine screwed General McChrystal. Given extraordinarily generous access, the magazine stretched a vague set of ground rules beyond recognition. The magazine and the reporter played “gotcha.”
In the aftermath of General McChrystal’s firing, there has been the predictable amount of obligatory, ritual cant. For example, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs told reporters that General McChrystal apparently tolerated an atmosphere of disrespect and said, “I was nearly sick. It made me, literally, physically, I couldn’t believe it.” Everyone I have talked to thinks Admiral Mullen is a real grownup. I suspect what he was sick about was that he knew precisely how events were going to unfold; I doubt if he recoiled in horror from the jockish, locker room remarks that were actually made.
As I thought about this I imagined a different, better world. In this other world, a bunch of soldiers who have been in combat and under stress for years unwind by singing songs of praise. “What a guy that Holbrook is, warm, wonderful, always thinking first about the other guy.” “And the Vice President, how can you do anything but love him?” In that same world, when major league baseball players gather for a beer, they create an atmosphere of respect by competing to point out the acts of genius of their manager and coaches. “When he took me out, a deep sense of loyalty and reverence filled my soul.” And I’ll only barely mention the regular meetings held by reporters to express their appreciation of their editors.
The fact is, people bitch and complain; it’s the human condition. There was absolutely nothing remarkable, sinister, or even particularly clever in the Rolling Stone quotes. The Vice President “Bite me” comment was the kind of utterly predictable, third rate crack someone on the outer ring of the circle throws in to be noticed by the guys on the varsity. We all know that this is mostly how we all act. The real problem is that what we all know in concept becomes different when it appears in quotes on a printed page, attributed to a particular person.
What was remarkable and idiotic and maybe somewhat telling was that a reporter, perhaps particularly a Rolling Stone reporter no one knew, was allowed within a light year of the General. The PR guy who let this happen has understandably quit, but General McChrystal has no excuse for allowing himself to be set up. The fact that he did is suggestive of two things. First, there does develop a sense of reverential self-regard and entitlement around senior generals, and this is particularly true of contained and secretive parts of the military such as the special forces. The military needs to create a total immersion course for senior generals on the nature of the real world. Second, command at this level is not sort of political, or a little political — it is in its essence political. General Marshall knew this; General Eisenhower knew this; General Petraeus knows this. But General McChrystal clearly did not know this well enough. I do not say “political” here in a sneering, or critical sense. The war in Afghanistan is only partially military; it is much more about political will, sustainability, and judgment.
And what about Rolling Stone? The Washington Post of Saturday, June 26 had a fascinating piece by Karen Deyoung and Rajiv Chandrasekaran on some of the background of the article. I drew the following conclusions. First, the “rules of engagement” for the reporter and the implied trust of the reporter were crazy. Second, because they were unwritten, and implicitly so broad, the magazine can say after the fact that everything printed was within the rules. That’s always convenient. Third, despite what the magazine has said, it did not review the article with the General’s staff. And fourth, Rolling Stone screwed General McChrystal. The General and his staff had every reason to believe the quotes were off the record, the article was not really reviewed with the General’s staff, and the “fact checking” did not check any of the quotes at the core of the episode. So the war is now a bit harder, and General McChrystal’s career is destroyed; but hey, Rolling Stone and Michael Hastings have their scalp on the wall.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow and Braintruster Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.