Following President Barack Obama’s firing on Wednesday of four-star Army General Stanley McChrystal, many pundits, including on Capitol Hill, were quick to praise the officer’s career and performance in Afghanistan, where he was the top NATO commander, and his prior service in Iraq. The fact is, McChrystal displayed grossly poor judgment in his remarks to Rolling Stone magazine that led to his firing from the Afghanistan command. Indeed, beyond the serious lapse in judgment represented by McChrystal even granting such a series of interviews in the first place, the controversy raises legitimate questions of why our military leaders are going around blathering to the media.
Military policy is to be set by our civilian leaders — the president, the secretary of defense, and others in an administration. That includes defending and explaining those policies to the media and to others. These are not responsibilities to be exercised by military officers themselves; they do so at their own peril, as McChrystal found out this week.
The question is, why are top military officers even getting themselves into these jams in the first place? Are officers granting interviews and extended media access to their activities simply to burnish their own image or chances for promotion; or to ingratiate themselves to particular congressional leaders? Are they being impliedly or quietly urged to do so by administration officials who are themselves uncomfortable with or unsuccessful at defending their own muddled policies, such as those underlying U.S. operations in Afghanistan? If so, military leaders ought to resist such overtures, even if it means risk to their own careers. If they are granting interviews for more mundane purposes such as ego or self-promotion, shame on them; and for such character flaws, they ought to be disciplined if not fired.
The bottom line here is that the president did the right thing in relieving McChrystal of his command based on the stupid remarks he made in a series of interviews that should never have been granted and which itself reflected poorly on his judgment. But the broader questions of how and why our military leaders are delving into policy discussions with the media in the first place, ought to be the subject of some hard questions levelled at our military and civilian leaders by the Congress.