It was a mistake to say what he and his staff said, or it was a mistake to make these remarks in the presence of a journalist?
The incident reveals the ambivalence Americans feel when it comes to the institutional power at the center of American democracy. Whatever keeps the wheels of Washington working smoothly, it isn’t candor.
Coming as I do from a country that has a real and ancient monarchy (for which I have little respect), during twenty-some years in the United States I’ve always viewed this country’s republican credentials with a certain measure of skepticism.
If at its conception America cast aside regal authority because of an unambiguous faith in the power of the people, why is it that so many Americans have such a gooey-eyed fascination with British royalty? Why the obsession with another form of royalty: celebrity? Why, in a supposedly egalitarian society, is such a high value attached to very visible displays of social status?
Americans seem to have had less interest in completely abandoning rule by a monarch than in modifying regal power and repackaging it in the quasi-regal institution of the presidency.
Having been crowned, a president always remains a president — even once out of office. He lives in a little palace, can never move around without being surrounded by a huge entourage of somewhat venal and sycophantic characters. And as in all forms of palace politics, those individuals who have wormed their way close to the center of power will do whatever they can to protect the status of the institution as they make frequent expressions of obeisance to the king-president.
But the concentration of power always involves the consolidation of power and so a president, just like any king, always needs to be on his guard, aware that one of his dukes or generals might pose a challenge.
Enter, Gen Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal isn’t trying to stage a coup but he’s a repeat offender when it comes to upholding the most important principle in regal politics: never undermine the authority of the monarch or his highest officers.
National Security Adviser, Gen James Jones is a “clown.” Senior envoy Richard Holbrooke is a “wounded animal.” Joe Biden is “Bite me.” This is not language that can be uttered louder than a whisper in any palace.
As McChrystal heads to Washington for yet another dressing down, there’s one thing we can be sure of: President Obama won’t be wearing a bomber jacket when he lectures his top general. He’ll simply relying on the power of his throne — the Oval Office.
The general prides himself on being sharper and ballsier than anyone else, but his brashness comes with a price: Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict. Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut the fuck up, and keep a lower profile
Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris [in mid-April], McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.
“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”
“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”
When Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, he immediately set out to deliver on his most important campaign promise on foreign policy: to refocus the war in Afghanistan on what led us to invade in the first place. “I want the American people to understand,” he announced in March 2009. “We have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He ordered another 21,000 troops to Kabul, the largest increase since the war began in 2001. Taking the advice of both the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also fired Gen. David McKiernan – then the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan – and replaced him with a man he didn’t know and had met only briefly: Gen. Stanley McChrystal. It was the first time a top general had been relieved from duty during wartime in more than 50 years, since Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War.
Even though he had voted for Obama, McChrystal and his new commander in chief failed from the outset to connect. The general first encountered Obama a week after he took office, when the president met with a dozen senior military officials in a room at the Pentagon known as the Tank. According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his fucking war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”