Obama: "civilian control of the military…is at the core of our democratic system"

The Washington Post reported that U.S. President Barack Obama said, after General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation today as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, that “The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general … It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system“… This is reported here.

This drama happened because of an unbridled article published in the current issue of The Rolling Stone magazine. Before calling McChrystal back to Washington for this resignation, Obama said that remarks made by the General and members of his staff and reported in the article, entitled “The Runaway General“, showed “poor judgment”.

Obama made the announcement in the White House Rose Garden with Vice President Joe Biden (one of the targets of McChrystal’s aides in the Rolling Stone article) standing just behind his right shoulder.

[See UPDATE below — the spin reported in the NYTimes says: “The drama began on Monday afternoon, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was flying home from Illinois to Andrews Air Force Base, took an unsettling call from General McChrystal”…]

Obama then convened a meeting of his national security team on Afghanistan and Pakistan (minus McChrystal) in the White House Situation Room with the participation of a larger number of people who McChrystal and his aides had dissed in front of the Rolling Stone reporter, including Biden, National Security Adviser James Jones and, apparently by videoconference, the American Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, and special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke.

McChrystal’s departure was urged by an earlier Washington Post article which reported, on Tuesday, that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told journalists:
(1) “General McChrystal has made an enormous mistake”
(2) “I think the magnitude and graveness of the mistake here are profound”
(3) “The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking”
(4) “I think anybody that reads that article understands . . . what an enormous mistake this was” … [and parents of soldiers] “need to know that the structure where they’re sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war”…

According to this WPost account, “ABC News’s Jake Tapper stopped him [Gibbs]. ‘Did I hear you correctly? So you’re questioning whether General McChrystal is capable and mature enough for this job he has?’ ‘You had my quote right’, Gibbs said”.

This WPost article was published yesterday —the day before Obama said “The conduct represented in the recently published article undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system“. And, this WPost article noted that “The insults from McChrystal and his men — packaged with vulgarities, a middle finger and drunken singing in a Paris bar — challenge not just Obama but the sacred concept of civilian control of the military“. It is published here.

And, web commentator Col. Pat Lang wrote on his blog, Sic Semper Tyrannis (A Committee of Correspondence), today that “Active duty military people are free to express their opinions to their superiors. They are not and should not be free to use the press against the civilian government”.  This was posted here.  This was interpreted by other comments on Lang’s blog as illustrating how McChrystal had somehow defied “the sacred concept of civilian control of the military”…

But did the General use the press, or was it the other way around???

The “Runaway General” article in Rolling Stone that caused all this fallout reported, among other things, that “The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict” [sic] … “The general’s staff is a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs … and they pride themselves on their can-do attitude and their disdain for authority” … “The assembled men may look and sound like a bunch of combat veterans letting off steam, but in fact this tight-knit group represents the most powerful force shaping U.S. policy in Afghanistan. While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side” … “Part of the problem is structural: The Defense Department budget exceeds $600 billion a year, while the State Department receives only $50 billion. But part of the problem is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk shit about many of Obama’s top people on the diplomatic side” [sic] … This can all be read in full here.

Analyzing the journalistic side of the story, AP reported that “Some of the article’s most biting comments came from McChrystal aides who were granted anonymity in [Michael] Hasting’s piece. But Bates [the Rolling Stone editor] said McChrystal was present when many of the comments were made. ‘Even the quotes that he wasn’t in the room for clearly reflect his thinking and were clearly given with his blessing’, he said. The military leaders knew they were speaking to a working reporter, Bates said. ‘I had a tape recorder and notepad out the entire time’, Hastings told CNN on Tuesday, ‘so it was all very clear that it was on the record’. Hastings said most of the material he gathered from McChrystal and his team came within the first day or two of arriving in Paris, so it wasn’t as if he spent months building a relationship with them. The article describes a night out at an Irish pub, where much of McChrystal’s team got drunk. Rolling Stone’s fact checkers discussed the substance of some of the quotations with the sources before the article was printed, Bates said. But the magazine did not give any of them a chance to read the piece ahead of time or revise quotes, he said”.   This is published here.


There was far worse material tucked into the middle of this Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal — two points in particular:

(1) That he had a big had in falsifying accounts to hide the friendly-fire killing in Afghanistan in 2004 of U.S. football star Pat Tillman, and

(2) That McChrystal had close supervisory responsibility at Camp Nama in Iraq in 2006, during a time when there was considerable detainee abuse and torture.

But McChrystal was neither reprimanded nor fired for those things.

And, the Rolling Stone article noted that “In May 2009, as McChrystal prepared for his confirmation hearings, his staff prepared him for hard questions about Camp Nama and the Tillman cover-up. But the scandals barely made a ripple in Congress, and McChrystal was soon on his way back to Kabul to run the war in Afghanistan”.   This is also posted here.


Meanwhile, the real bottom line: a Yahoo! news story reported tonight that “As President Obama concluded his Rose Garden statement revealing that he had replaced Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top American commander in Afghanistan, a reporter shouted an impromptu question. “Can the war be won?” he yelled. The president didn’t answer” … This is posted here.

The Rolling Stone article said — before McChrystal was replaced (by General Petraeus, currently head of U.S. Central Command, and the man who brought us the surge in Iraq) — that “When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose”.   This can be found here.


UPDATE The New York Times reported on Thursday that: “The drama began on Monday afternoon, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was flying home from Illinois to Andrews Air Force Base, took an unsettling call from General McChrystal … The phone connection was scratchy [n.b. – can you imagine, the former commander of American forces in Afghanistan + VP of the USA do not have good phone equipment connections?], and the conversation lasted barely two minutes. General McChrystal told the vice president there was an article coming out that he would not like. Baffled, Mr. Biden asked his staff to investigate, and when he landed, aides handed him the article. After digesting it back at his residence in Washington, Mr. Biden put in a call to Mr. Obama at 7:30 that evening. Hours earlier, the White House had itself gotten wind of the article, and a young press aide named Tommy Vietor distributed copies to all the top officials in Mr. Obama’s national security circle. The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs — a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war — Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office
… On Tuesday, while General McChrystal was making the 14-hour flight to Washington, the White House was involved in a whirl of meetings about his fate. Along with Mr. Gates, aides say, four other senior officials were influential: Vice President Biden; the national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen; and Mr. [Rahm] Emanuel. Mr. Emanuel’s opinion and that of other advisers swung back and forth, a senior official said. Mr. Obama seemed inclined toward dismissing the general, but heard out the debate. By Tuesday night, officials said, they ended up hoping that the general would simply resign. Meanwhile, General McChrystal was busy placing calls to apologize to people who were belittled in the article. One of those he called was Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee … By the time he woke up Wednesday morning, President Obama had made up his mind … this is the highest profile sacking of his presidency. The time between Mr. Obama’s first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation [n.b. — 36 hours] offers an insight into the president’s decision-making process under intense stress: He appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive” … This NYTimes report is published here.

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