McChrystal’s Peter Principle
Posted: Monday, June 28, 2010 8:01 pm
By: Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s ego or Lt. Gen. George Patton’s swagger were tolerated to a point because they were successful, but did those traits also facilitate their true strengths? Would they have been who they were, would they have succeeded without them? General Stanley McChrystal has an abundance of idiosyncrasies, including a lifelong tendency to defy authority. But unlike MacArthur and Patton, his flaws tended to enhance a lower echelon, devil-may-care Special Ops (which he led) psyche, and not that which is conducive to commanding an army. Clearly a man who needs a strong hand on his shoulder, he is a classic example of the Peter Principle: he was promoted to his level of incompetence, and President Obama had no choice but to accept/demand his resignation. Anybody foolish enough to mouth off with such immaturity and disrespect about his civilian superiors has no business commanding an army, much less directing a war. McChrystal was guilty of crass insubordination, and Obama was constitutionally obligated as commander in chief to relieve him of his command.
After meeting alone with McChrystal for 30 minutes, Obama sent him on his way with reporters staked out at the White House noting that the general was not asked to stay for the previously scheduled meeting on Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. That was the tip-off that McChrystal’s Afghan command had come to an abrupt end.
A talented and egocentric general, this was not the first time that McChrystal had overstepped the bounds of his role. He green lighted the cover-up that followed the death by friendly fire of football star Pat Tillman, a clue to the psychology of a man who obviously has difficulty admitting imperfection, whether in himself or the military.
Those who know him were not surprised that he could have been so indiscrete in revealing his dismissive attitude about the Washington policymakers setting the course of the war he was prosecuting. McChrystal is known for his extraordinary discipline, limiting himself to one meal a day and running seven miles a day. In Kabul, he banned Burger King and alcohol from the U.S. base, battling the evils of fast food along with the Taliban.
But out of his element, he put his career at risk along with the careers of the aides around him when he trash-talked to Rolling Stone Magazine like a cocky athlete in the locker room.
Now McChrystal is history, and the future belongs to an even more talented general, David Petraeus, whom Obama persuaded to immediately take operational control of the war in Afghanistan.
Petraeus wrote the manual on counter-insurgency, and to the extent that Iraq was brought back from the brink of disaster, the credit belongs to Petraeus. He was the architect of the troop surge and the political accommodations that led to the insurgents putting down their arms, at least for now.
Obama emerges from what looked like a very tough situation as a big winner. He demonstrated leadership in asserting the principle of civilian control over the military, and he got a replacement who is well versed in all things Afghanistan and Iraq, so there is no lapse in the administration’s war plans. Petraeus is a huge plus going forward, and if anybody can make the Afghanistan policy work, it’s him. But in case anybody hasn’t noticed, the war is going badly. June is shaping up to be the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the nine-year war, which is now officially the longest war in American history.
When the history of this period is written, it will note that Obama’s problem was greater than any single general, and it has to do with a war that is not winnable. The very public airing of McChrystal’s remarks disparaging the president and his aides are making the American people question what we’re still doing in Afghanistan, and whether we’ve taken on a mission of nation-building that can’t succeed in a country with a corrupt president and an economy dependent on the drug trade.
The impact of McChrystal’s words must be devastating to the troops who are putting their lives on the line every day. The military has a phrase, “different spanks for different ranks,” meaning the generals and the higher-ups get away with more than the corporals and the sergeants, who are on the front lines. Obama said otherwise, but in the end, based upon any in-depth analysis of McChrystal’s personality and career, he was the wrong man for the job, which should have been apparent to the man who hired him and finally fired him.
Published in The Messenger 6.28.10