Don’t Cry For Obama, Stan McChrystal

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    General McChrystal violated a single most honored standard of behavior among general/flag officers: dignified collegiality. One purpose of CAPSTONE is to round off edges left from any stunted professional military growth. A fourth generation military officer failed the course’s standard. This isn’t the first time; just a more public one.

    A particular demeanor is expected among general officers that extends beyond the military to civilian counterparts in government and industry, not just to the President and up “the chain of command.” Upon selection to general or flag grade, every single officer is sent to the CAPSTONE “leadership course.” CAPSTONE, quaintly known as the generals’ knife and fork course, helps forge relationships and build cooperation across the services and interagency. When you have a star or stars, access follows. That access is used judiciously and within limits just as in any human endeavor at stratospheric levels of authority. The air is a bit thin up there, and if you cannot adapt, you quickly suffocate. The measure of CAPSTONE success is how far a flag officer continues to breathe. Apparently Stanley McChrystal’s flame wasn’t snuffed early enough; this at least is his third strike. Why? And what does this say about how some military officers’ careers are nurtured?

    There is no reason to be either a screamer or to act out in passive aggressive fashion as a flag officer. First there is the power of the position. Next there are the relationships. Then there is also a backchannel method of communication that is available when flag officers want to make a point. When attention and emphasis are desired or when there is a point of contention, a message is sent “Personal For” (P-4) to formally establish the record. And if after you have expressed your position, you don’t get the outcome desired, you salute smartly and carry on; or you retire. If you can’t follow orders, time to be gone. Hold your tongue until then. Rolling Stone is not the usual transmission medium for P-4s.  

    Access to any P-4s from McChrystal would be informative. Doubtful there are any. Crafting a message of that sort and effectively using the lines of communication require skills and diplomacy he apparently lacked. He relied on other tactics. There is no doubt that he possesses attributes of physical courage, certainly, and moral courage, albeit misdirected. He is a highly qualified warrior who merited progress through the ranks. But he seems to have benefited from a culture of nepotism and cronyism that assigns passes to “special cases.” So where a fellow like Colonel “Bull” Simons who possessed similar qualifications but without a pedigree could not make general, McChrystal carried on despite lapses.

    Decades ago, I worked for an honestly heroic human and Marine, an Ivy Leaguer who survived grave wounds sustained during combat in Viet Nam. He had me screening and selecting officers available for assignment to his battalion. One morning I briefed him on a few and he stopped me at one name. “Is that the general’s son?” I answered that was so. “No generals’ sons in my unit.” Plain and simple as that, it was the most rigid guidance he ever gave.

    A couple of years later my phone rang and it was an Admiral. He wanted to discuss the fitness report I had written his son, an officer in my command. This was the only time I ever had a parent contact me about an officer. It was a testy conversation that ended abruptly after I explained that not only should the Admiral ask his son about his disinclination to perform his duties but also why the young man failed to return my calls about the “hot” checks stroked at the commissary when he didn’t provide his wife and young child support.

    Being a second, third, or fourth generation military member is an accident of birth. It is not qualification for office. General McChrystal has been labeled immature by retired army General George Joulwan. Maybe; hard to use that term with someone of his chronological maturity. Young men and women are discharged from the military for passive aggressive behavior using the diagnosis “adolescent reaction to stress” to describe the behavior that results from immaturity. McChrystal was encountering a kind of stress that he’d never faced: one that he couldn’t just shoot between the eyes and be done with. Evidence of a character and leadership deficiency is demonstrated by a command climate that allowed the themes of discussions described; objectionable even in casual conversation. General officers don’t dime each other out, much less the President and they don’t permit it, at least openly.

    Disloyal, certainly. And never forget that all officers serve at the pleasure of the President. So it doesn’t take a punishable offense to remove one from office. I have been around many flag officers, some of whom who did not merit subordinates’ respect, but never any who tried to blame their inability to accomplish their responsibilities on their bosses, even if they thought that was so (unless it was to their spouses). Even P-4s are not supposed to personalize objections.

    This isn’t peculiar to the military. It is about human nature. There is an attitude of righteousness, invincibility, and entitlement that is inculcated when cronyism and nepotism are the modus operandi. The lines between merit and cronyism and nepotism can blur. In the military culture the negative outcomes are apt to be more dramatic, threaten national security, and require greater vigilance. You can draw a straight line from cronyism to the USS Cole attack. This particular instance in a wartime command looks to have been a byproduct nepotism.

    McChrystal claims he voted for Obama. So though this is surely perplexing for him, he should not feel he bears the full blame. Nothing excuses the flawed appointment by this President of this General to an assignment beyond his ability. Whoever gave Obama advice and counsel (Gates, Jones, Holbrooke, Eikenberry…) needs to be taken by the shorthairs, immediately. But there is no evidence that Obama has the initiative. And the fact that a man who should be most contrite for the USS Cole bombing, Admiral Vern Clarke, was assigned by this President to get to the bottom of the Fort Hood murders further underlines the one hand washes another culture that shrouds accountability in the Pentagon. Clarke, now a distinguished professor and member of the board of trustees at Regent University, isn’t likely to risk violating the standard of dignified collegiality to root out the uncomfortable facts. There are a lot of other examples of these convenient and symbiotic arrangements during the past decade, but Obama owns these two. None of those involved will ever shed a tear for him when he is done and they’ll likely still be standing. Obama has neither the intuition nor mettle to stand up to Gates and Company, a self-inflicted wound. It looks like he is done.

    • Teddy Goodson

      on Obama, because I remember all too well the atmosphere following his election, the enormous pressure to be “bipartisan” and not rock the boat. I was unhappy at the time at many of his appointments, especially in the case of Geithner, and I wondered about Gates but realized the politics of it all.

      When it comes to your assessment of McChrystal, I believe it is spot on. Too bad Obama stopped with him (and also can’t find a way to fire such toxic retired officers as General Jack Keane), but here again there are political restraints. Personally, I believe that almost every one of Obama’s big problems/disasters have arisen when he tried to court Republicans and went against his progressive roots, from health care to the Surge in Afghanistan.  

    • TomPaine

      “This isn’t peculiar to the military. It is about human nature. There is an attitude of righteousness, invincibility, and entitlement that is inculcated when cronyism and nepotism are the modus operandi. The lines between merit and cronyism and nepotism can blur. In the military culture the negative outcomes are apt to be more dramatic, threaten national security, and require greater vigilance. You can draw a straight line from cronyism to the USS Cole attack.”

      I have seen this particularly common among the so-called “legacy” products in both military and civilian life.