Staging a mutiny in Rolling Stone magazine

General McChrystal’s anti-Obama blabbing to a hippie mag exposes the internal disarray of the US elite.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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President Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal from his post as commander of US military forces in Afghanistan yesterday. He replaced him with General David Petraeus, who led the 2007 surge campaign in Iraq. This was in response to comments made by McChrystal and his aides that ridiculed Obama and members of his national security team, reported in a Rolling Stone magazine article.

What’s striking is how juvenile most of the remarks are. They are not witty or clever, nor do they represent an off-the-cuff ‘truth’ that everyone recognises but is afraid to say. About an upcoming dinner with a French minister, an aide of McChrystal’s said ‘It’s fucking gay’. Preparing for questions about an earlier run-in with vice-president Joe Biden over counterterrorism strategy, an aide suggests McChrystal respond by saying ‘Biden? Did you say: Bite Me?’ Hilarious.

There have been plenty of conflicts in the past between presidents and generals. But most of those showdowns were mainly about the content of the task – military strategy and execution. McChrystal’s indiscretions are petty and personal, and thus different than the insubordinate words of General Douglas MacArthur (who was fired by President Harry Truman for threatening to take the war to China in 1951) or Navy Admiral William Fallon (who resigned in 2008 after publicly criticising the Bush administration’s policy towards Iran).

McChrystal also seems embarrassingly naive about letting a journalist from a hippie magazine hang around with him and his aides. Military brass are supposed to be known for their hardcore discipline, but McChrystal’s decision not just to speak to the media himself, but to allow his aides to do so as well, displayed a shocking lack of discipline. I know that values associated with the military, such as loyalty and commitment, are not revered in society today, but you still don’t expect a top military officer to abandon them.

The move to fire McChrystal comes at a time when the US/NATO campaign in Afghanistan is stalled. Last December, Obama announced a new strategy, which combined a surge with a planned date of withdrawal in July 2011. As I noted on spiked at the time, this is a bizarre approach, which neither sees the job through to victory (however defined) nor ensures a quick withdrawal. More recently, there have been setbacks in waging the war in Afghanistan, including ongoing violence in the Marjah region, increasing deaths among civilians, and a delay in a major operation in Kandahar.

McChrystal’s petulant remarks represent, in fact, a continuation of the disagreements that emerged during the Obama administration’s three-month review of its war strategy last year. That process was also marked by leaks and counter-leaks. McChrystal’s indiscretion appears to be not simply a one-off case of bad judgment. Rather, it seems to be the latest example in an ongoing tale of personal infighting and rivalries among national security officials.

What explains this outbreak of pettiness? Fundamentally, the issue is a lack of unity around the war’s aim. It is not possible to cohere around the goal, because that goal is unclear. Are US troops temporary fighters against Al-Qaeda (who by the way have left the country)? Nation-builders against the Taliban and behind the government of the corrupt Afghan president Hamid Karzai? Social workers trying to restore villages?

To paraphrase a famous saying, disputes in the public sector are so nasty and personal because the stakes are so low. You would have thought that a war, with the lives of soldiers and civilians at stake, would be the opposite – high stakes and high purpose. But again, the lack of clarity about the US mission has undermined unity, and now the supposedly ultra-disciplined military are just as bitchy as a group of social workers sitting around a canteen.

The US and NATO are losing the war on the ground in Afghanistan, especially when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The disarray among the American military officials and civilian leaders is the product of a war without purpose, and shows the US has lost control.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation, here.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that the West has defeated itself and looked at what’s behind the sudden outburst of questions around Afghanistan. Frank Furedi discussed the dangers of a risk-averse war. Brendan O’Neill stated that answers as to why British troops are in Afghanistan can be found at home rather than over there. David Chandler blamed the invading powers of the West for the weakening of the Afghan state. He also talked about the theatrical nature of war. Or read more at spiked issue Afghanistan.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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