During the George W. Bush presidency, the media were fixated with the need for military brass to be able to challenge the president. In the age of Obama, however, what once was hailed as principled dissent has morphed into intolerable insubordination.
Witness the calls for Gen. Stanley McChrystal to resign from his NATO command in Afghanistan. CNN's anchors are in a tizzy that the brass "mocked" the administration.
When I read the Rolling Stone piece that spawned the McChrystal debate, I kept waiting for a quote so inflammatory that it essentially forced President Obama to call the general away from Afghanistan and back to Washington so that he can (a) be dressed down, (b) be forced to issue a more abject apology, (c) resign or be fired -- or (d) all of the above.
House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., called for McChrystal to resign, saying, "If he actually said half of what is being reported, he shouldn't be in the position he is in."
Actually, McChrystal did not say half of what was reported. An unnamed aide called National Security Adviser James Jones a "clown." A top adviser jokingly called Vice President Joe Biden "Bite Me." An unnamed aide likened Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke to "a wounded animal." Unnamed sources told freelance writer Michael Hastings that McChrystal described Obama as "uncomfortable and intimidated" at their first meeting.
McChrystal did joke about Biden -- "Who's that?" -- although the joke was not about Biden so much as McChrystal's unhappy experience after he criticized the veep's support for a "counterterrorism-plus" strategy. That earned McChrystal a private meeting -- also known as a trip to the woodshed -- with Obama in Air Force One last year.
In short, this brouhaha is not on the level of Gen. Douglas MacArthur threatening China with war and otherwise deliberately working to undermine the orders of President Truman. This dispute was not born in a calculated attempt to challenge civilian authority over military command.
Instead, it was a full-color gaffe born in the cocky badinage of men behaving like boys and trying to out-quip one another in the front of "the boss."
Of course, excessive verbal preening is not a smart idea in front of a freelance reporter. The story served only to confirm reports of in-house fighting between McChrystal and Holbrooke, and with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.
In failing to check his subordinates' derisive talk, McChrystal allowed for a situation that now demands very public apologies. Worse, it could alter the course of Operation Enduring Freedom, as the general put it, "knee-deep in the decisive year."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told the press corps that the president "was angry," as the story distracts from a "vital mission." Fair enough.
McChrystal and his inner circle behaved in a manner that was stupid, arrogant and immature. In their thoughtlessness, they let down troops who have made tremendous sacrifices.
A year into the Obama surge and a year before the reputed July 2011 withdrawal deadline, there are some 94,000 U.S. personnel serving in Afghanistan. Their interests must come first. They deserve the best military commander available.
Really, who cares if one of McChrystal's aides called Jones a "clown"? What happens in Afghanistan is crucial. Sticks and stones are not.