WASHINGTON -- Set aside for a moment how inconceivable it is that an article in Rolling Stone magazine could be the cause of anyone's being fired -- much less a U.S. commanding general in the midst of a war. But that is what happened this week.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is a tough, combat-experienced officer who knows how to fight. He knows how to kill the enemy. But he clearly doesn't get it when it comes to the media. His staff let him down -- badly -- by allowing Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone to hang around with a tape recorder.
That the Pentagon, Central Command and Gen. McChrystal's staff granted unfettered, prolonged access to this publication reflects ignorance, arrogance or both. Everyone involved in approving this "embed" ought to be fired for egregious lack of judgment. They apparently believed they could win over Hastings. They were dead wrong.
I don't disagree with much of what Gen. McChrystal and his staff are quoted as saying about the O-Team in the article. I have used many of the same terms to describe the present administration -- albeit with fewer expletives. It also should be noted that despite claims of "several lengthy interviews" with McChrystal, there are very few lines of text in the offending article directly attributable to the general.
On our most recent Fox News trip to Afghanistan, we reported that many of the troops were concerned about new rules of engagement, cuts in night operations, and limits on raids and airstrikes making them more vulnerable to Taliban attacks and improvised explosive devices. Rolling Stone looked for and found troops who were unhappy with the rules of engagement in order to support its contention that the war in Afghanistan is "unwinnable." That refrain is increasingly prevalent because President Barack Obama refuses to use the words "win" and "victory."
McChrystal's firing has been likened to President Abraham Lincoln's replacing George McClellan during the Civil War and President Harry Truman's sacking Douglas MacArthur in the midst of the Korean War. Not accurate.
Both McClellan and MacArthur vocally opposed the stated policies and strategies of their presidents. That's not what happened here. In announcing he had "accepted" his battlefield commander's resignation, Obama acknowledged that he and McChrystal "are in full agreement about our strategy." This week's firing was simply political theater designed to enhance Obama's stature as a "leader" in the eyes of his supporters and critics.
Obama suffers from decision-deficit disorder. He routinely is described as detached, disengaged, ambivalent and uncertain in everything from the economy to securing our borders to the Gulf oil spill to the war itself. He has been unable or unwilling to name our radical Islamist enemies or define victory. He is the only commander in chief to announce a deadline for withdrawing troops while committing more Americans to combat.
McChrystal was relieved because a thin-skinned president couldn't take criticism in the press and needed to prove he's the boss. The intemperate published remarks made by McChrystal and his staff in Rolling Stone provided an opportunity for Obama to show his left-wing base that he is in charge.
The task of commanding 140,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan now falls on the shoulders of Gen. David Petraeus. In accepting the assignment, Petraeus has not only stepped down from the more senior post as head of U.S. Central Command but also been thrust into the role of "America's only competent general." One critic suggested, "He's very good, but it does make us look like we're a banana republic." Another, a senior officer, said, "Petraeus has accepted 'mission impossible' -- herding coalition cats, getting the cooperation of a completely corrupt regime in Kabul and meeting the often conflicting expectations of an inept regime in Washington."
Leading the unruly coalition in Afghanistan may well prove to be far more challenging than what Petraeus had to do in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. In Baghdad, he had a close working relationship with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the respect of other coalition leaders, a supportive and united White House, and backing from a bipartisan coalition in Congress. The command in Kabul offers few of these advantages, for the O-Team is nearly incapacitated by internal rivalries and enormous egos.
"Why would Gen. Petraeus take what amounts to a demotion?" I asked. The answer, from an admirer, was revealing: "He was selected because he is a proven commodity. Everyone knows Petraeus is a battle-tested commander and a patriot. In Iraq, he showed how to work every military, diplomatic and political angle necessary to get the job done. By taking the evidently thankless job in Kabul, he just guaranteed he will be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."
Perhaps. But first, Petraeus has to persuade this commander in chief to say "victory." He has a year to do it.