Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

McChrystal: the teachable moment

Here is a thoughtful note an Air Force commander who has done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan sent out to subordinates. This strikes me an act of leadership, recognizing that the moment calls for more than just lashing out at the media, and helping younger officers understand the significance of the situation, and the ...

Mr Wabu / Flickr.com
Mr Wabu / Flickr.com
Mr Wabu / Flickr.com

Here is a thoughtful note an Air Force commander who has done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan sent out to subordinates. This strikes me an act of leadership, recognizing that the moment calls for more than just lashing out at the media, and helping younger officers understand the significance of the situation, and the professional questions it raises. It was sent out before the president fired the general:

Gentlemen -- A few thoughts inspired by this article, not so much a detailed examination, but, rather, a riff:

This article isn't reality. It's reality filtered through the prism of one reporter and sharpened for maximum effect by his editors. There almost certainly is "another side" to this story...probably many more sides. However, this side is damaging to almost everyone involved.

Here is a thoughtful note an Air Force commander who has done tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan sent out to subordinates. This strikes me an act of leadership, recognizing that the moment calls for more than just lashing out at the media, and helping younger officers understand the significance of the situation, and the professional questions it raises. It was sent out before the president fired the general:

Gentlemen — A few thoughts inspired by this article, not so much a detailed examination, but, rather, a riff:

This article isn’t reality. It’s reality filtered through the prism of one reporter and sharpened for maximum effect by his editors. There almost certainly is "another side" to this story…probably many more sides. However, this side is damaging to almost everyone involved.

Notice that, counter to the impression that collateral media accounts may have generated, GEN McChrystal actually isn’t quoted as disparaging the President, his policies, or other senior administration officials. About the toughest things he says about anyone else are his comments about Ambassadors Holbrooke and Eikenberry who are, sort of, peers in this endeavor.

Still, in a counter-insurgency, it’s important to cultivate a decent working relationship between the military and diplomatic components of the effort. That’s going to be tough to re-establish here. Very tough.

Although it’s difficult to be sure from the article-after all, Hastings isn’t really on the inside-there doesn’t appear to be much self-examination or self-criticism within GEN McChrystal’s inner circle, and anyone who isn’t in complete agreement with GEN McChrystal is deemed to be not just wrong but an enemy. That’s not a staff, it’s a cult.

Even if GEN McChrystal doesn’t have contempt for his civilian leaders (not just his peers), it’s clear that many members of his staff do, and they feel free to give voice to that contempt.  So, if those staff attitudes don’t reflect GEN McChrystal’s thinking, they do reflect an atmosphere of tolerance for this sort of disrespect to civilian authority, and GEN McChrystal is responsible for that atmosphere too.

Some of the things that GEN McChrystal’s staff says about the President and the Vice President are, potentially, violations of Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice: "Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." Toleration of this behavior may not be prosecutable, but it’s surely evidence of the wrong command climate. It is possible to disagree with each other and with the President without resorting to the sort of contemptuous language reflected in the article. In fact, if we can’t disagree with each other professionally without falling out with each other personally, it’s impossible for us to get better at what we do. "As steel sharpens steel, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17)

This article is edited the way "Survivor" is edited, for maximum drama rather than chronological accuracy. I suspect that, if you extracted all the quotes from GEN McChrystal and his staff and placed them in chronological order rather than the order in which they are presented in the article, you would find that 80-90% of the really inflammatory quotes were made during one or two evenings in Paris, when most of the "quotees" were drinking. As most of you know, after 12 months of no drinking and 18/19-hour days, 7 days a week, your tolerance for alcohol is significantly reduced, and inhibitions are much more relaxed than they might otherwise be. There’s a lesson here for any of us who may have to spend any extended time with members of the media. Baseball is always a good topic to discuss when drunk.

At least by some accounts, GEN McChrystal has been at least mildly reprimanded by the President and Secretary of Defense for his lack of discretion in the past (after his comments about the workability of plans and numbers last year). How many times do you have to be told to keep your own counsel (or at least keep your counsel in-house) before indiscretion just becomes insubordination?

Where in the world was the ISAF Public Affairs staff in all of this?

As a result of this article, there’s been a lot of commentary about whether GEN McChrystal can be dispensed with at this time, even if the President wanted to do so. Much of the commentary has talked about a balance or tradeoff between a couple important relationships…the relationship between GEN McChrystal and his civilian superiors and the relationship between GEN McChrystal and the Afghan war effort, as if those relationships exist in natural tension with each other. This is wrong. The relationships are independent. The relationship between the President and GEN McChrystal is defined by the Constitution of the United States. The relationship of GEN McChrystal to the war in Afghanistan is defined by time and circumstance. It is completely possible for both relationships to be good and constructive. It is the behavior of GEN McChrystal and his staff that have put these two relationships into opposition. Now, the President must decide which of these two relationships is more important to preserve.

I know which way I would decide.

My comments are not "the final word." What else is there to be learned here? Do you agree or disagree with the points above?

Dialogue is important. This is how we learn from each other.

Cheers!"

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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