McChrystal’s Fatal Words

Posted June 29, 2010, at 7:28 p.m.

It is common belief that it was words spoken by Gen. Stanley McChrystal that caused the president to fire him as the top commander in the war in Afghanistan. Hardly anyone seems to doubt that the president had to fire the general.

But there’s more to the story. A close reading of the 15-page profile of the general in Rolling Stone magazine shows that most of the inflammatory words that caused all the trouble either were secondhand quotes or remarks by unnamed “advisers,” “aides,” or “senior aides” to the general.

The reporter, Michael Hastings, made good use of a month of hanging out with Gen. McChrystal and members of his staff. The profile tells a story of the successes and failures of the war and the background and behavior of the general. But it violates a journalistic ethic that anonymous sources should not be quoted for derogatory information or opinion. If someone has something nasty to say, his or her name should be attached to it.

To be specific:

Preparing for a speech in Paris, the general anticipates an unwelcome reference to criticism by Vice President Joe Biden and jokingly says he might ask, “Who’s that?” But it’s an unnamed “top adviser” who suggests, “Biden? Did you say bite me?”

As a new commander meeting with President Barack Obama and senior officers, Gen. McChrystal said Mr. Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. This from unnamed “sources familiar with the meeting.”

At his first one-on-one meeting with President Obama, the general was “pretty disappointed” that the president “clearly didn’t know anything about him” and “didn’t seem very engaged.” This from an “adviser to McChrystal.”

Regarding retired Gen. Jim Jones of Cold War fame, “one aide” calls him a “clown” who remained “stuck in 1985.”

“Politicians like McCain and Kerry turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.” This from “another aide.”

On special envoy Richard Holbooke: “The Boss thinks he’s like a wounded animal.” This from a “member of the general’s team.”

Relations were strained between Gen. McChrystal and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, “according to those close to the two men.”

On Afghan President Hamid Karzai: “McChrystal privately acknowledges that Karzai is a less-than-ideal partner.” This from “one of the general’s top advisers.”

The point is that any organization, whether a military, political or business firm, has its rivalries, frictions and feuds. Get their people talking off the record or “on background,” and the hatreds will spill out. The war and its leadership already were in trouble. When Michael Hastings’s article came out online, brief quotes raced around the Internet and quickly went viral. The general had his faults, but it was his aides who did him in.

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