President-elect Joe Biden, whose transition team is still being stonewalled by a Trump administration unwilling to relinquish its grip on power, was briefed today by a group of outside advisers on matters of national security. Among those experts were several Obama administration alumni, including former U.N. Ambassador Samatha Power, retired U.S. Navy Adm. William McRaven and, somewhat surprisingly, one Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Rolling Stone readers may recall this magazine’s 2010 profile of McChrystal, in which the four-star general and commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, along with his staff, openly disparaged Obama administration officials, including, most notably, Vice President Joe Biden. The article got McChrystal fired. Obama certainly remembers — and he’s devoted two and a half of the 706 pages in his memoir, A Promised Land, out today, to the dust-up.
As the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings explained back in 2010, the problem began when, during a public Q&A in the fall of 2009, McChrystal “dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as ‘shortsighted,’ saying it would lead to a state of ‘Chaos-istan.’”
It’s noteworthy that Biden spoke with McChyrstal on Tuesday, the same day Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller confirmed the U.S. will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 from about the current 4,500 — a move President Donald Trump is reportedly so determined to see through that he fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, when he opposed the idea.
In A Promised Land, Obama writes that “although McChrystal and his inner circle had shown atrocious judgement in speaking like that in front of any reporter,” he wasn’t initially inclined to fire the general. “Whether out of carelessness or vanity, every one of us in the White House had said something on tape that we shouldn’t have at one time or another. If I wouldn’t fire Hilary, Rahm, Valerie or Ben for telling tales out of school, why should I treat McChrystal any differently.” In the book Obama explains, with a bit of a dramatic flair, why he changed his mind.
Over the course of twenty-four hours, I decided that this was different. As every military commander liked to remind me, America’s armed forces depended entirely on rigid discipline, clear codes of conduct, unit cohesion and strict chains of command. Because the stakes were always higher. Because any failure to act as part of a team, any individual mistakes, didn’t just result in embarrassment or lost profits. People could die. Any corporal or captain who publicly disparaged a bunch of superior officers in such vivid terms would pay a grave price. I saw no way to apply a different set of rules to a four-star general, no matter how gifted, courageous, or decorated he was. That need for accountability and discipline extended to matters of civilian control over the military — a point I’d emphasized at the Oval Office with [Robert] Gates and [Michael] Mullen, apparently to insufficient effect.
I actually admired McChrystal’s rebel spirit, his apparent disdain for pretense and authority that, in his view, hadn’t been earned. It no doubt had made him a better leader and accounted for the fierce loyalty he elicited from the troops under his command. But in that Rolling Stone article, I’d heard in him and his aides the same air of impunity that seemed to have taken hold among some of the military’s top ranks during the Bush years: a sense that once the war began, those who fought it shouldn’t be questioned, that politicians should just give them what they ask for and get out of the way. It was a seductive view, especially coming from a man of McChrystal’s caliber. It also threatened to erode a bedrock principle of our representative democracy, and I was determined to put an end to it.
The morning was hot and muggy when McChrystal and I finally sat down alone in the Oval Office. He seemed chastened but composed. To his credit, he made no excuses for his remarks. He didn’t suggest that he’d been misquoted or taken out of context. He simply apologized for his mistake and offered his letter of resignation. I explained why, despite my admiration for him and my gratitude for his service, I had decided to accept it.
Obama then describes a Rose Garden press conference in which he announced he planned to appoint Dave Petraeus — later brought down by his own scandal, an affair with his biographer — to McChrystal’s old job. After the announcement, still “feeling livid about the whole situation,” Obama gathers the national security team for a terse meeting.
“I’m putting everyone on notice that I am fed up,” I said, my voice steadily rising. “I don’t want to hear any commentary about McChrystal in the press. I don’t want any more spin or rumors or backbiting. What I want is for people to do their damn jobs. And if there are people here who can’t act like they’re on a team, then they’ll be gone, too. I mean it.”
The room fell silent. I turned around and left with Ben trailing me; apparently, we were scheduled to work on a speech.
“I liked Stan,” I said quietly as we walked out.
“You didn’t really have a choice,” Ben said.
“Yeah,” I said, shaking my head. “I know. It doesn’t make it go down better.”