Media Missing the McChrystal Point
NEW YORK - The media firestorm over the Rolling Stone profile (6/22/10) of General Stanley McChrystal mostly
missed the real point of the article, which was a damning portrait of
the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Much of the media coverage stressed the criticism
and insults hurled by McChrystal and his staff at various
administration figures. Some of these remarks were more substantive
than others. A joke about Joe Biden ("Bite Me") has been overblown;
McChrystal and his staff seemed to be suggesting a list of possible
gaffes the general might make following a speech.
The real significance of the piece is in the
criticism--voiced by soldiers in Afghanistan and military experts--of
the war itself. "Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of
counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish
in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert
Storm," wrote Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings.
A senior adviser to McChrystal stated, "If
Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it
would become even less popular." Hastings added that some officials see
the war requiring a much larger troop presence: "Instead of beginning
to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to
ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further."
Hastings conveyed a sense of confusion over
precisely what the mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be. Some
soldiers complained that the rules of engagement put them at greater
risk, though they were uncertain whether these were McChrystal's
intended policies or rules that have been, as Hastings put it,
"distorted as they passed through the chain of command."
Hastings also pointed out that McChrystal's history
has been glossed over by the media, beginning in Iraq: "When Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his infamous 'stuff happens' remark
during the looting of Baghdad, McChrystal backed him up. A few days
later, he echoed the president's Mission Accomplished gaffe by
insisting that major combat operations in Iraq were over."
After Army ranger (and former pro football player)
Pat Tillman was killed in 2004, McChrystal "signed off on a falsified
recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed
by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn't read the
recommendation closely enough--a strange excuse for a commander known
for his laserlike attention to minute details.)"
In 2006, there was a scandal about torture and
abuse reminiscent of Abu Ghraib at another detention facility in Iraq
that was overseen by McChrystal. "McChrystal was not disciplined in the
scandal," Rolling Stone reported, "even though an interrogator
at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times."
Hastings concluded that the media have mostly
"given McChrystal a pass" on these controversies. Indeed, a Washington
Post story (6/24/10) on McChrystal's ouster noted in passing
that he "had to fend off allegations that he played a role in the
Army's mishandling of the death of Ranger Cpl. Pat Tillman," and that
he "faced criticism for his oversight of detention facilities where
prisoner abuse occurred."
Discussing the broader message of the Rolling
Stone article is clearly not something the White House wants--and
neither do corporate media, preferring the personal drama of military
officials making politically damaging comments about political leaders,
and the White House's attempt to assert control.
Thus, Obama's decision to dismiss McChrystal and
bring in General David Petraeus seemed to bring sighs of relief. As Washington
Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote (6/23/10), it was a "rare" but
welcome sight: "The commander in chief was being commanding." Milbank
added that Obama's "best moments as president" including "defying his
own party to ecalate the fight in Afghanistan."
The fact that he named Petraeus as McChrystal's
replacement was essentially swapping one media favorite with another (Extra!,
11-12/07). "Naming the highly respected Petraeus as
the new commander is by all accounts a great save," explained ABC
Pentagon reporter Martha Raddatz (Nightline, 6/23/10). "It allows the
administration to continue the same counterinsurgency strategy in
Afghanistan without missing a beat." Raddatz helpfully added this
assessment: "A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly
referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems
to turn to gold."
Similar pronouncements were heard throughout the
corporate media. The right-wing Media Research Center gathered them in a
video reel, which Fox host Bill O'Reilly
used on his June 24 show. Apparently the media's gushing enthusiasm for
Petraeus is yet another sign of their left-wing bias.
So a story that was an indictment of the war became
a lesson in how the White House would be sticking with its plan. As the
Washington Post (6/24/10) put it, Obama's "decision to turn
over the Afghan command to Gen. David H. Petraeus allowed the president
to keep his war strategy intact." NBC Pentagon reporter Jim
Miklasziewski (6/23/10) declared that "the military is very high on
David Petraeus, and there should be no slowdown or hitch in the
Afghanistan strategy." NBC reporter Chuck Todd (6/23/10) noted
that the "one thing the president made clear: He may be changing
commanders, but not the mission.... Trading McChrystal for Petraeus
neutralized what could have turned into another political mess."
Of course, the war in Afghanistan would already
seem to qualify as a "mess," to say the very least. But for now, Obama
asserted presidential control--and that's something most reporters and
pundits were eager to cheer.