Presidents and Their Generals: A Conversation with Eliot Cohen

Stanley_McChrystal_350x250By Eliot Cohen | 10 August 2010

AI: Let’s start with the Stanley McChrystal episode. What’s your take on this? Why did the general act with such inexplicable tactlessness? Did President Obama, in your view, respond appropriately?
Eliot Cohen: Obama handled it well. I’m not one of his greatest admirers, in general, but I thought he reacted quickly and decisively and that his speech hit all the right notes. It was also gracious and appropriate to ensure that General McChrystal retires at four-star rank.

For me, I have to say that this was a really painful episode. I know Stanley McChrystal, and I admire him enormously. I’ve been fortunate to see him do his thing when I was in the Department of State. Yet I agreed right from the start that he had to be relieved. As for why he (and much more, his staff) spoke that way in front of a Rolling Stone reporter, who knows? It was probably a perfect storm of people who were tired and a little bit relaxed because of being in Paris and a journalist who, if he had been a correspondent from one of the regular outlets, would have exercised some judicious self-censorship. It may have something to do with Special Operations culture, too.
AI: Meaning that McChrystal and his personal staff may not have been as familiar with dealing with the press as some others?
Eliot Cohen: Yes. Of course, he has dealt with the press before. But he’s not been long in that world, and his most recent experience has been in that very intense world of Special Operations. As Director of the Joint Staff, too, you’re not a public figure, so he hasn’t dealt with the press very much in recent years. Still, why the staff let that guy in is beyond me. If you spent just a minute or two Googling “Michael Hastings”, you’d immediately think, “Trouble. Don’t let this guy anywhere near the boss.” And Rolling Stone, for goodness’ sake. And finally in this regard, if you’re going to bring a journalist in that close, presumed to be adversarial or not, have it be one of the regular defense reporters, someone who not only knows the context but will want to work with you in the future.
AI: This Hastings fellow got his scoop and burned his source, but he doesn’t care.
Eliot Cohen: I doubt that he cares that his source has been burnt to a crisp—or about the damage that he did to a fine soldier, and indeed, the country. He was after a one-off and never intended to come back. McChrystal’s staff, I’m sure, feels devastated, as they should. They didn’t just fail to serve their boss; they helped to destroy him.
AI: Notwithstanding the venue in which McChrystal said what he said, did any of it make sense?
Eliot Cohen: Oh, much of it was true. It’s a classic Washington gaffe: You don’t get in trouble for saying things that are false; you get in trouble for saying things that are true, or largely true. It wasn’t stated diplomatically, of course, and it should never have been said in public.
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