The shattering of McChrystal
In one fundamental way, Gen. Stanley McChrystal never was Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But in another, he absolutely was.
And with the lives of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops dependent on his judgment, that is why McChrystal, although an intellectually brilliant general, has just proven he lacks the wisdom to command the Afghan war.
McChrystal was not willfully and repeatedly insubordinate by disobeying his commander-in-chief's wartime orders, as MacArthur repeatedly did in Korea -- until President Truman fired him. Then again, McChrystal had no need to be insubordinate.
Unlike MacArthur, McChrystal won his big war strategy battle back in Washington after an extensive review, during which the general tried to pressure the president. He gave some policy-pushing interviews -- for which Obama summoned him to the presidential woodshed for a lesson that apparently didn't stick.
For McChrystal turned out to be like MacArthur in that he has disrespected and demeaned the presidency of the United States of America.
MacArthur always seemed to know precisely what he was doing when he undercut his commander-in-chief on policy and disrespected his president with boorish personal slights. Even when Truman respectfully flew all the way to Wake Island to meet with MacArthur for the first time, rather than just summoning his general home as was usually done.
("Even after we stopped the engines and they opened up the door of the plane, the bastard still didn't show up," Truman fumed to Merle Miller, author of "Plain Speaking." Truman thought MacArthur was deliberately disrespecting the U.S. presidency and refused to exit the plane. Forty-five minutes passed. "...Finally, the son of a bitch walked out of one of the buildings near the runway there," Truman said. He told MacArthur: "I don't give a good goddamn what you do or think about Harry Truman, but don't you ever again keep your commander in chief waiting. Is that clear?" Truman added: "His face got red as a beet...")
In contrast to the scheming MacArthur, it is possible that McChrystal was naïve and even clueless about just how disrespectful he was being to the American presidency by allowing a journalist Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine to witness McChrystal and his aides engaging in frat boy ridiculing of Obama and his advisers. Among Team McChrystal's bull's-eyes:
- Vice President Biden: McChrystal joked that if he's asked about Vice President Biden, he'll answer: "Who's that?" To which an anonymous aide yahooed: "Biden? Did you say, Bite Me?"
- Obama's national security adviser Jim Jones, a retired four-start general: An anonymous McChrystal aide called Jones "a clown" who is "stuck in 1985."
- Obama's senior Afghanistan-Pakistan advisor Richard Holbrooke: Rolling Stone wrote, "The Boss says he's like a wounded animal," says a member of the general's team. "Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he's going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous."
And of course, Obama: McChrystal, who reportedly voted for Obama in 2008, was not impressed in their first meeting. "According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked 'uncomfortable and intimidated' by the roomful of military brass," Rolling Stone wrote. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn't go much better. "It was a 10-minute photo op," says an adviser to McChrystal. "Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was. Here's the guy who's going to run his (expletive) war, but he didn't seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.'"
Another McChrystal judgment data point: Rolling Stone says McChrystal was given a copy of the article in advance of publication and made no objection.
In his memoirs, Truman wrote that he made his secretaries of state and defense and the joint chiefs of staff take a stand on what to do about the insubordinate five-star general. They unanimously recommended firing MacArthur.
There's a good chance we may not have to wait for Obama's epic to learn the results of the 2010 McChrystal poll. Bob Woodward, call your office.
-- Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.