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Stanley McChrystal and Barack Obama

For Worse
Stanley McChrystal and Barack Obama

“How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?”

That’s General Stanley McChrystal’s first line in the June 2010 Rolling Stone article that ended his military career. The dinner in question was a political function—a meeting with a French minister meant to keep France in NATO’s Afghanistan coalition—but McChrystal is not a politic man. Instead he’s an iconoclast who built a renowned career and a hell-raising reputation on walking the tightrope between thumbing his nose at authority and rising up through the military’s archly hierarchical ranks.

In spring 2009, President Obama was just weeks into his presidency when, following the advice of Pentagon advisors and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he relieved Gen. David McKiernan as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and appointed McChrystal to the role. The Washington Post at the time described the shift as replacing a general who represented “traditional Army” with a general who’d “pressed for the use of counter-insurgency tactics.” Obama’s move was a rare one: it was the first time since Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur that a president had removed a top general during wartime. But Afghanistan was crucial for the new president. As a candidate, Obama had staked his foreign-policy platform on a different U.S. direction in that war. “I want the American people to understand,” he said shortly after his inauguration. “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

McChrystal had voted for Obama, but neither man personally knew the other when they first met one-on-one in the Oval Office. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” a top McChrystal advisor later told the Rolling Stone journalist. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s this guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

President Obama spent the first summer and fall of his presidency reviewing and debating the U.S. Afghanistan policy with his advisors. On one side were the advocates of counterinsurgency. Their plan: send in lots of ground troops, destroy the enemy, live among the civilian population, and slowly rebuild another nation’s government; or, if we must, build a new government up from scratch. This was the tactic made famous by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. The critics of counterinsurgency, Vice President Joe Biden among them, argued that the United States had no business spending that kind of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. They called for limiting the U.S. role to containing terrorism, period. It wasn’t long before Obama drew pointed criticism for the duration and transparency of his administration’s debate.

At the same time, McChrystal had commissioned his own policy review, warning of mission failure if the U.S. didn’t quickly add 40,000 additional troops. In September 2009, McChrystal allegedly leaked his report to the press—another unprecedented wartime move, and one that infuriated The White House. Some members of Congress called on Obama to fire McChrystal immediately.

But it was another month before McChrystal earned his second one-on-one meeting with the president. Even as the administration continued to review its Afghanistan policy, McChrystal gave a speech in London that October calling for a massive troop surge. Taking questions from reporters about the more limited counterterrorism strategy that Vice President Biden had proposed, McChrystal called that idea “shortsighted” and likely to lead to “Chaosistan.” Aboard Air Force One shortly afterward, Obama’s terse message to the general was simple: quiet down and keep a low profile.

On December 1 at West Point Obama laid out his administration’s Afghanistan policy. First he detailed all the reasons a long war in Afghanistan was a bad idea, and they were many: it would be expensive; the nation was in an economic crisis; a protracted war would sap American strength. The president then went on to give McChrystal nearly everything he’d requested, including a surge of 30,000 more troops.

As the son of a two-star general and a West Point cadet in the 1970s, McChrystal had established himself as a ringleader of campus dissidents. During his time there, he acquired more than 100 hours of demerits for drinking, partying and insubordination, and nearly got himself kicked out for troublemaking. But the young soldier learned just how far he could push the brass without getting expelled. In fact, he thrived. Obama’s speech seemed like one more familiar step in a 35-year career: first a smackdown, then a promotion.

By late spring of 2010, Stanley McChrystal stood as the single most powerful agent of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, filling every void left blank in the dysfunctional patchwork of ambassadors, special representatives, security advisors, cabinet secretaries, and corrupt presidents of foreign nations.

Until, that is, Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone article appeared in June. In detail after detail, the article candidly captured the disdain that McChrystal and his staff showed toward their civilian bosses and diplomatic partners.

“Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg,” is how one staffer responds upon hearing that McChrystal had just received an electronic message from Special Representative Richard Holbrooke.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal goofs in another exchange. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” replies a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite me?”

McChrystal, the article suggested, used the same tactics on Washington politicians that he used to destroy insurgents: figure out how your enemy operates, be faster and more ruthless than anyone else, then take the bastards out. In addition to the insults, what may have rankled a president who’d already staked his own career on a controversial troop surge followed by a promised drawdown, was a passing policy comment attributed to a senior military official in Kabul. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces if we see success here.”

Hastings’s article “The Runaway General” made news before it made the newsstands. Washington pundits felt certain that Obama would not want to draw attention to the quagmire that Afghanistan had become by firing McChrystal. But the third one-on-one meeting between the president and the general didn’t fit the usual pattern of smackdown followed by promotion. On June 23, by the end of a meeting that lasted less than 20 minutes, Barack Obama accepted Stanley McChrystal’s resignation. Days later, General McChrystal retired from the Army altogether, and President Obama set about getting to know a new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

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