The media firestorm over the Rolling Stone profile (6/22/10) of General Stanley McChrystal mostly missed the real point of the article, which was a damning portrait of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Much of the media coverage stressed the criticism and insults hurled by McChrystal and his staff at various administration figures. Some of these remarks were more substantive than others. A joke about Joe Biden ("Bite Me") has been overblown; McChrystal and his staff seemed to be suggesting a list of possible gaffes the general might make following a speech.
The real significance of the piece is in the criticism--voiced by soldiers in Afghanistan and military experts--of the war itself. "Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm," wrote Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings.
A senior adviser to McChrystal stated, "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular." Hastings added that some officials see the war requiring a much larger troop presence: "Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further."
Hastings conveyed a sense of confusion over precisely what the mission in Afghanistan is supposed to be. Some soldiers complained that the rules of engagement put them at greater risk, though they were uncertain whether these were McChrystal's intended policies or rules that have been, as Hastings put it, "distorted as they passed through the chain of command."
Hastings also pointed out that McChrystal's history has been glossed over by the media, beginning in Iraq: "When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made his infamous 'stuff happens' remark during the looting of Baghdad, McChrystal backed him up. A few days later, he echoed the president's Mission Accomplished gaffe by insisting that major combat operations in Iraq were over."
After Army ranger (and former pro football player) Pat Tillman was killed in 2004, McChrystal "signed off on a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire. (McChrystal would later claim he didn't read the recommendation closely enough--a strange excuse for a commander known for his laserlike attention to minute details.)"
In 2006, there was a scandal about torture and abuse reminiscent of Abu Ghraib at another detention facility in Iraq that was overseen by McChrystal. "McChrystal was not disciplined in the scandal," Rolling Stone reported, "even though an interrogator at the camp reported seeing him inspect the prison multiple times."
Hastings concluded that the media have mostly "given McChrystal a pass" on these controversies. Indeed, a Washington Post story (6/24/10) on McChrystal's ouster noted in passing that he "had to fend off allegations that he played a role in the Army's mishandling of the death of Ranger Cpl. Pat Tillman," and that he "faced criticism for his oversight of detention facilities where prisoner abuse occurred."
Discussing the broader message of the Rolling Stone article is clearly not something the White House wants--and neither do corporate media, preferring the personal drama of military officials making politically damaging comments about political leaders, and the White House's attempt to assert control.
Thus, Obama's decision to dismiss McChrystal and bring in General David Petraeus seemed to bring sighs of relief. As Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote (6/23/10), it was a "rare" but welcome sight: "The commander in chief was being commanding." Milbank added that Obama's "best moments as president" including "defying his own party to ecalate the fight in Afghanistan."
The fact that he named Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement was essentially swapping one media favorite with another (Extra!, 11-12/07). "Naming the highly respected Petraeus as the new commander is by all accounts a great save," explained ABC Pentagon reporter Martha Raddatz (Nightline, 6/23/10). "It allows the administration to continue the same counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan without missing a beat." Raddatz helpfully added this assessment: "A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold."
Similar pronouncements were heard throughout the corporate media. The right-wing Media Research Center gathered them in a video reel, which Fox host Bill O'Reilly used on his June 24 show. Apparently the media's gushing enthusiasm for Petraeus is yet another sign of their left-wing bias.
So a story that was an indictment of the war became a lesson in how the White House would be sticking with its plan. As the Washington Post (6/24/10) put it, Obama's "decision to turn over the Afghan command to Gen. David H. Petraeus allowed the president to keep his war strategy intact." NBC Pentagon reporter Jim Miklasziewski (6/23/10) declared that "the military is very high on David Petraeus, and there should be no slowdown or hitch in the Afghanistan strategy." NBC reporter Chuck Todd (6/23/10) noted that the "one thing the president made clear: He may be changing commanders, but not the mission.... Trading McChrystal for Petraeus neutralized what could have turned into another political mess."
Of course, the war in Afghanistan would already seem to qualify as a "mess," to say the very least. But for now, Obama asserted presidential control--and that's something most reporters and pundits were eager to cheer.