Is McChrystal’s Mess Really Obama’s Fault?

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Jackson Diehl makes the case that Gen. Stanley McChrystal isn’t to blame for exposing his staff’s feuds with President Obama in Rolling Stone this week. Obama is:

If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama. For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December.

….A scathing memo by [Karl] Eikenberry describing Karzai as an unreliable partner was leaked to the press last fall….Biden, for his part, gave an interview to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in which he said that in July of next year “you are going to see a whole lot of [U.S. troops] moving out.” Yet as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates tartly pointed out over the weekend, “that absolutely has not been decided.”

This is pretty weak tea. Whoever leaked Eikenberry’s memo shouldn’t have done it, but that leak happened before Obama decided on his Afghanistan strategy. The memo itself was merely Eikenberry offering his blunt advice in an ongoing debate, which is entirely proper. And Biden, speaking shortly after the final decision on Afghanistan was announced (the exact timing is unclear from Alter’s book), was just giving a slightly aggressive take on a strategy that everyone had already agreed to: namely that troop withdrawals would begin in July 2011. He didn’t publicly criticize the strategy or McChrystal or anyone else. Gates’s “tart” statement came months later and only under prodding from an interviewer.

As Diehl says, we all know perfectly well that there are tensions between McChrystal and some members of the White House staff over our Afghanistan strategy. That’s been obvious for over a year, ever since the strategy started being being hashed out. But that’s entirely normal, and there’s a big, big difference between being on one end of a policy fight (perfectly OK) and later publicly trashing everyone you disagreed with (not OK). And there’s an even bigger difference between a civilian doing it (imprudent at best, sleazy at worst) and a general officer doing it (idiotic at best, insubordinate at worst). Even if Obama should be managing staff tensions over Afghanistan better, which is at least a defensible position to take, blaming the Rolling Stone debacle on him just won’t fly. This is McChrystal’s mess.

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