Monday, July 5, 2010

McChrystal, Obama, and the male ego

Now that this whole McChrystal thing has blown over a bit, we can take a step back and meditate on the situation.  And I think I speak for everyone when I say, "really?!"  Really you super awesome four-star general, director of covert ops, you didn't realize that things you said in front of a magazine journalist might be published, and that those same things might get you in trouble?  But that's not the only thing I'm incredulous about.  Read on for three very different angles on the Stan MacChrystal debacle: what does it say about McChrystal, what does it say about the administration, and what does it say about journalism?

For those of you just joining the news cycle, or outside the US, the general in charge of the Afghanistan war ran his mouth off about his distaste for everyone within the administration in front of a Rolling Stones journalist, and the subsequent article got him fired.

The Sexist Beatdown ladies have a pretty funny piece on just how ridiculous this Stan MacChrystal character is, and how his male machismo seems to have both advanced his career, and ended it:
SADY: Dear Lord. This McChrystal profile: I cannot get over it! Like, four pages in, it starts becoming more generous. Which is kind of startling, because on page one it kind of presents McChrystal as this overgrown eighteen-year-old drinking Bud Light Lime and playing World of (Actual) Warcraft (In Which People Die) with his buddies. Bud Light Lime. BUD LIGHT LIME! The reputation-killer! ...It seems to me that this whole article is profiling McChrystal as like this sad doomed exemplar of a certain kind of machismo. The kind that doesn’t overthink, doesn’t do things that are “fucking gay” like attend restaurants with candles or drink wine or respect the President, and is dead set on getting its way no matter what the consequences of getting your way when you’re resolutely opposed to thinking about stuff or opening your mind at all might actually be...
AMANDA: The lack of self-awareness is the main thing. I’m amazed that no one had their guard up around Hastings—or better, that this is what they look like with their guard up. I mean, looking at the hilarious photographs accompanying the story of Hastings in hipster jacket and beard and sunglasses hanging out with all these dudes in uniform, you have to wonder what they were thinking.

SADY: Right. Like, that’s what’s kind of alarming. That not only are they being frat-house homophobic and hostile to diplomacy — although part of their job is supposedly understanding this culture that they’re trying to singlehandedly break down and reconstruct — but that they’re being quoted as talking smack about everybody in the administration. They’re all identified mostly by their positions, not names, but does being anonymous really help with the impression that this entire operation is just Out Of Control?
AMANDA: And insulting the administration in the laziest way possible. Biden? More like Bite Me! France: Gay! Beer: Good! ...
 LLUSTRATION: One of these things is not like the other. But go ahead and say unflattering, borderline-treasonous stuff to it anyway! No, I mean it. GO ON.
AMANDA: And it’s essentially about how McChrystal is like fucking God of Iraq. Which, you know: That guy who thinks he can do anything he wants with an entire region without either respecting the opinions of his superiors or appearing to take any actual interest in understanding how that region works and what it needs (Bud Lite Lime) — he’s gone now, but how did he get this far?
SADY: Yeah. And that’s the thing: He participated in cover-ups, he found himself in the middle of scandals, but he endeared himself to the previous administration by embodying the sort of soldier they wanted — one who would do what “had to be done,” whether or not it was, like, actually permissible. And now he’s carrying that same mind-set forward. It’s hubris, I think. At some point, in some administration, Stan McChrystal’s sense of entitlement or potential was probably proportionate to his actual mandate or talents. Now, at this point in his life, that seems to be clearly not the case.
So there's that.  But there's another ego I want to talk about in this picture, and that's the one of President Obama.  Okay, so let me just say up front that I could very well be wrong on this.  BUT, I'm going to say it anyway.  It seems to me that if General McChrystal was truly the best person to run the war in Afghanistan, and if the strategy he was implementing was the best strategy (which Obama says it is, since they're not changing it), then what he said was not enough to get him fired.  Have him issue a very public apology?  Yes.  Have him grovel and apologize seven ways from Sunday to the administration officials he'd insulted?  Yes.  But fire him?  How important are the administration's hurt feelings anyway?  I say this, because although McChrystal's comments would obviously strain his relationship with other US bureaucrats in charge of doing whatever they do in Afghanistan, all reports are that he has fantastic relationships with the actual Afghanis who are actually supposed to be running Afghanistan.  Is the situation in Afghanistan really so under control that we can risk firing the one US official who seems to be on speaking terms with Karzai?  Because he made a joke about the vice president's name?

OK, moving on from insulting president Obama's judgment to something everyone can get behind: the terrible mainstream media!  It turns out that media people hear public figures say unflattering things all the time, but they don't publish it, because this would threaten their "access." Jon Stewart makes this point hilariously, skewering the media for lamenting that Hastings would never get that kind of access again, after running with the McChrystal piece.  Stewart points out, he doesn't need to--he got the story of the year.

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Jason Linkins, for the Huffington Post, expands on this point:
Of course, I wish Stewart had gone a little bit further. Having watched several news anchors slap themselves silly in stunned befuddlement over Rolling Stone's coup, I've been wanting to ask: "Hey, you all realize that Jann Wenner didn't dispatch the kid who turned in that really great review of the new Band Of Horses album to embed himself with McChrystal, right?" The story was reeled in by Michael Hastings, who covered the Iraq War for Newsweek. To watch some of these dolts on the teevee interact with him, it's as if they've never heard of him!
But in a way, Hastings is an alien thing to them, the way he used his access to McChrystal to do actual reporting, instead of the more traditional "gash for ass" model where a reporter flatters a subject in order to create an opportunity for further flattery.
Linkins points to a piece on Politico, which as he puts it, "accidentally told the truth about their journalistic values":
McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal's remarks.
That paragraph has been removed from the article, but you can read Jay Rosen's dissection of it here.

I agree with Stewart and Linkins that the whole thing leaves me with a funny feeling about the media, because media people were so genuinely shocked that a reporter earned a subject's trust, witnessed incriminating events, and then published it.  On the other hand, though, I'm not sure if I can call what Hastings did good journalism.  The reason is, that while I think it's incredibly important to know what McChrystal's strategy is in Afghanistan, what type of person he is, and how much we should trust him, it's also true that having that information is a moot point if the story that delivers it gets him fired.  My problem with the Hastings piece, and, well, I'm not really sure if it is a problem, but it's something I feel a little weird about, is that by covering the news in the way he covered it, he made news.  Hastings had to know that printing what he printed was going to get McChrystal in major trouble.  And, if that's the case, then is the story Hastings wanted to tell--"this is the dude they've got running things in Afghanistan"--still relevant?  I don't know what the right answer is, and I'm certainly not saying Hastings should have played the beat reporter role and offered quote approval to his subject.  But I guess I find the publishing of these incendiary quotes under the purported topic of talking about McChrystal's handling of the war to be a little disingenuous.  He had to know the only headline to come out of his reporting would be: McChrystal bashes administration.  Was that the news he thought we needed?

But the real question is, what the eff do we do now in Afghanistan?  Where do we go from here, and when does it stop?

1 comment:

  1. So I think the "male ego" vision of Obama's decision is REALLY simplistic. You have a stereotyped vision of men!


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