BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
« Previous | Main | Next »

What's behind McChrystal Obama 'Rolling Stone' row?

Mark Urban | 16:00 UK time, Tuesday, 22 June 2010


General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned back to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with his Commander in Chief. The cause of this recall, which will be widely seen as a carpeting, is not the rising toll of Nato casualties in Afghanistan or tensions with Afghan leaders, but a profile in Rolling Stone magazine that has angered the White House.

The magazine reports critical remarks - particularly by the general's staff - about the president and other senior members of the Administration. National Security Adviser Gen James Jones is lampooned as 'a clown' by one, Vice President Biden as 'Bite me' by another.

Perhaps the most sensitive passage is one in which one of Gen McChrystal's aides describes a meeting between commander and CinC one year ago: "Obama clearly didn't know anything about [McChrystal], who he was... he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed."

General and president have had their differences before. Mr Obama admonished McChrystal after a speech in London last October. The president thought his Afghan commander was lobbying too hard and too publicly.

Now the Rolling Stone profile, titled "Runaway General" has caused fresh tension.

The general himself is not quoted being critical of the president. His gaffes (as opposed to those of his staff) consist of saying - possibly joking - that he couldn't bear to open an e-mail from Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke and a criticism of the US ambassador in Kabul.

McChrystal has apologised for the article, implying that he should never have gone along with it. One of his press aides has resigned.

This spat has echoes of another two years ago when Admiral William Fallon, then head of Central Command, cooperated with a profile for Esquire magazine, and ended up having to quit. The admiral considered that the writer had misrepresented his views about possible military action against Iran but resigned anyway on a point of honour.

If McChrystal is to be criticised it should be for allowing similar access to someone who was bound to quote selectively (as all journalists do...), and for allowing a frat party atmosphere among his staff.

Even if other reporters might not have quoted critical remarks about administration officials verbatim, it is hard to imagine that any honest writer could have ignored the critical comments made by the Kabul headquarters team.

The critical difference between this and the case of Adm Fallon though is that Gen McChrystal has not himself been quoted being critical of the president or his policies. And while criticism of the Commander in Chief is a serious misdemeanour in the American set up, the general cannot fairly be accused of doing that.

So why such a tough reaction from the White House? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the president would like to keep his commander in Afghanistan on the back foot. The latest carpeting, just like last October's may well be designed to stop McChrystal from becoming too assertive in public about the future direction of Afghan strategy.

These tensions are bound to increase as the president's deadline for starting a withdrawal of US forces (July 2011) approaches. Senior Nato officers have been privately critical of the deadline, arguing that it gives them too little time to demonstrate success, and causes influential Afghans to doubt the future US commitment to their country.

If my suspicions are correct about the motives for summoning his general back to Washington, then it is quite possible that Gen McChrystal will offer his resignation.

He may consider it a point of honour to take responsibility for his staff, or he may just wish to deny his president the psychological leverage he seeks to gain by this recall.

That the two men may go to the brink over such an apparently trivial issue is, however, symptomatic of the increasingly fraught differences over Afghan policy, particularly the president's timetable for withdrawal.


  • Comment number 1.

    Such vanity

    all this supports the jihadi narrative that confusion and dissension is sowed by heaven among the oppressors of islam.

    how do you beat a 'you have the clocks we have the time' strategy?

  • Comment number 2.


    Iraq was retribution for 9/11 under the guise of WMD and regime change. Afghanistan was to prevent ANOTHER 9/11 as it was 'launched from the training camps there' by Bin Laden.

    Obama was cemented in place by $1 billion. Follow the money - HE HAS TO! Not all top brass are dumb, and a few know how to say: "Up with this I will not put."

    The New American Century is being wracked up through ball-tampering.

  • Comment number 3.

    NOW THERE'S A THING! (Rolling stone link) ADDITONAL TO #2

    "Like the attacks by Al Qaeda, the disaster in the Gulf was preceded by ample warnings – yet the administration had ignored them."

    Almost as if IN BOTH CASES someone in a position of influence wanted/needed A NEW PEARL HARBOUR aka ANOTHER 9/11. What was it Obama said so gauchely? Almost as if he had to TELL PEOPLE THE CONNECTION?

  • Comment number 4.

    Actually, the view of General McChrystal and his sub-commanders just express their disgust of political bureaucrats trying to run the war details from Washington rooms -rather than allow those in the first line of the Afghan war to decide how to win it! General McChrystal may have broken the military hierarchy protocol "thou shall not badmouth your boss," but he deserves credit for reducing the wanton killing of Afghan civilians with U.S. air-strikes that have fueled the Taliban insurgency. He doesn't deserve the lynching that he is getting in the press and the media. And given the travails of the worsening war situation in Afghanistan, it would have been impossible for General McChrystal to avoid a flip of the tongue with all of Obama's advisers circling around him week after week with orders on what to do - or not to do! Even Afghan president Hamid Karzai became so disgusted with all of Obama's advisers pushing him in every direction - like they do with McChrystal - that he threatened once to quit and join the Taliban!

    With the war casualties of the occupying forces in Afghanistan going up despite the U.S. surge, and with the Taliban becoming more effective as the war drags on, Obama's subordinates see the U.S. defeat on the wall and prepare for the blame game of "who lost the war in Afghanistan" era ahead. And, no doubt, all of them will try to strike deals with publishers and make millions in their Afghanistan books. Therefore, now is the time for all of them to prepare the scripts so they can shine in the aftermath - rather than being the ones portrayed as the buffoons who lost the war. There are always two losers in every war: a) The Generals in the field, and b) The Politicians at the top who pull the strings of the Generals. And now that the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan is taking shape, the parties in both groups have started the blame game for the soul of the American public opinion, and for their book sales bonanza. Wars make many people rich, and it is not only Haliburton contractors.

    I agree with the opinion expressed by a McChrystal aide that National Security Adviser General Jones "is a clown." It is easy for Jones and the Washington politicians to try to get credit for any success in the Afghan war from their posh offices in the capital, at the expense of the people in the first line of fire in Afghanistan. There is no doubt in my opinion that Obama's staff is trying to micromanage the war from 13.000 miles away, and that attitude is certainly getting under the skin of the commanders in the field. And as the defeat of the U.S. in Afghanistan is getting closer, the dogfight among the principals of "who is to blame for the travails of the the war" has blown up like the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Nikos Retsos, retired professor

  • Comment number 5.

    Actually, the view of General McChrystal and his sub-commanders just express their disgust of political bureaucrats trying to run the war details from Washington rooms -rather than allow those in the first line of the Afghan war to decide how to win it!


    Those "political bureaucrats" were either directly elected by the people of the United States or appointed by their democratically elected commander-in-chief.

    General McChrystal and his sub-commanders are not elected individuals and must answer to the president. Moaning and complaining about how the war is managed publicaly is inexcusable. If McChrystal really feels that strongly about such matters then he should resign.

    Whether the "commanders in the field" are the best people to make decisions in a given situation is the decision of the president. That is power and responsibility bestowed on him by the american people, not power for commanders to arrogantly take or assume is theirs.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have just read in full 'The Rolling Stone' profile. This was rank insubordination. I would have court-martialled that little upstart.
    Of course McChrystal had to go. Under Article II Section 2.1 of the US Constitution, the President is commander in Chief not some expletive deleted arrogant expletive deleted from West Point; and Joe Biden is
    the Vice President of the US .... not some underling of Hamid Karzai.

    This whole 'COIN' strategy should now come under 'Newsnight' scrutiny
    as it has clearly bred a culture of insubordination and mediocrity. It
    has no place in Britain either (pace Daniel Korski of The Coffee House):


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.