Flashback: Media Promoted Military Criticism of President Bush

No general should criticize his or her commander, and Gen. Stanley McChrystal is no exception. But the mainstream media is primarily concerned with the political fallout of McChrystal's apparent insubordination as revealed by a piece in Rolling Stone. They are not concerned with whether his critiques are accurate, in stark contrast to other military officers' critiques of war policy under the Bush administration.

During Bush's tenure, active duty generals that spoke out against administration policy were portrayed as courageous whistleblowers. Retired generals were treated as ever-wise sages of military policy. None were scrutinized as McChrystal, pictured right, has been in the hours since Rolling Stone released its article.

The most prominent active duty general to earn the media's affection was Gen. Eric Shinseki, current Secretary of Veterans Affairs (to the media's delight). He insisted in 2003 that, contrary to Defense Department policy as iterated by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the United States would need to send "hundreds of thousands" of troops to Iraq during the initial invasion. The media ate it up.

Granted, Shinseki made his comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee, a more appropriate setting than in the pages of a magazine. But the fact remains that Shinseki was expressing an opinion--one that undermined administration policy--and the media seized on his statement not as a commentary on the chain of command, but rather as criticism of the administration's war effort.

"Top generals, including Eric Shinseki," wrote the Boston Globe in 2004, "fault Pentagon leadership for not heeding their advice to deploy more ground forces before the invasion or to prepare adequately for the aftermath."

After Shinseki's repudiation of official military policy prompted rebukes from Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, the New York Times dubbed those rebukes "unusual" and went on to bemoan the fact that Shinseki "has not had more influence on the war planning and the allocation of forces," in the words of another Army general.

The Times also devoted a piece to active duty personnel's criticisms of Rumsfeld and the Iraqi war effort generally. The article read,

Long-simmering tensions between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Army commanders have erupted in a series of complaints from officers on the Iraqi battlefield that the Pentagon has not sent enough troops to wage the war as they want to fight it…

One colonel, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld, was among the officers criticizing decisions to limit initial deployments of troops to the region. "He wanted to fight this war on the cheap," the colonel said. "He got what he wanted."...

Underlying the strains between Mr. Rumsfeld and the Army, which began at the beginning of Mr. Rumsfeld's tenure, are questions that challenge not only the Rumsfeld design for this war but also his broader approach to transforming the military.
Instead of going on to examine the apparent problems with a military chain of command in which policymakers are criticized, the Times, the Globe, and many other media outlets used critiques from officers both named and anonymous to question the effectiveness and wisdom of American military policy.

McChrystal's statements could spur some discussion on whether President Obama is really up to the task in Afghanistan--the general is certainly is not the first to suggest it. Yet the media focus has been almost entirely trained on the general himself and on the supposed danger of a dysfunctional chain of command and a general who questions the president's orders.

Newsweek's Jonathan Alter today explained, in the words of his headline, "Why Military Code Demands McChrystal's Resignation."

"The most important issue at hand in the furor over Gen. Stanley McChrystal's acerbic comments in Rolling Stone," wrote Alter, "is the central one in a democracy: civilian control over the military." Got it? The question is not whether McChrystal's critiques of the administration could shine some light on an ineffective war effort or misguided military policies.

No, unlike military criticism of Bush war policy, McChrystal's comments spur discussion of the intricacies of a civilian-controlled military, not the specific policies employed by the civilian government and their consequences on the battlefield.

Time's Joe Klein applauded Mike Huckabee in 2007 for saying he "would have met with Shinseki privately and carefully weighed his advice." But now Klein is far more concerned with the "military tradition and practice" violated by generals who speak out against their commanders than he is with the ongoing war effort.

McChrystal was of course out of line. But media liberals who are only distraught at potential insubordination when the subordinate does not aid their political goals in speaking out are commentators whose opinions must be taken with a few grains of salt.