Walter Rodgers

McChrystal lesson: the price of criticizing your boss

Insiders who speak out often suffer the fate of prophets.

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Pointing out perceived flaws in your superiors – especially in public life – is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his command last month for insulting President Obama and other administration officials, is just the latest proof.

On the face of it, McChrystal resigned because he violated the sacrosanct soldier’s code that an officer does not publicly criticize his commander in chief. In 2004, in Iraq, not even the humblest privates in the 101st Airborne in Nineveh Province were foolish enough to allow this reporter to lure them into that trap. At a deeper level, McChrystal flunked Hamlet 101, ignoring Polonius’s counsel: “Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportioned thought his act.”

Still, some observers with nothing to lose have suggested that McChrystal should be applauded for “telling the truth.”

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Yes, he may be vindicated by history, especially in his reported judgment that Mr. Obama was “intimidated and uncomfortable” around generals and “didn’t seem very engaged” in his meeting with McChrystal.

But McChrytal should not be applauded, because “telling the truth” would have meant telling the American people that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable.

If, as Michael Kinsley once put it, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth,” a McChrystal reality check about US prospects in Afghanistan would have been a career-ending gaffe worth making.

Especially in wartime, Washington has little tolerance for gaffes.

In 1968, Gov. George Romney, the leading Republican candidate in the presidential race, let fly with a gaffe that probably cost him the nomination and perhaps the presidency.

With another mindless war topping everyone’s agenda then, the square-jawed Mr. Romney said that he initially supported the war in Vietnam because a fact-finding trip he took in 1965 amounted to the “greatest brainwashing anybody can get.”

Romney told the truth and was ridiculed out of politics – never mind that President Lyndon Johnson lied to America about Vietnam for years.

People in high office sometimes risk their careers – and perhaps even their lives – when they speak out against the prevailing wisdom of their superiors. At best, these dissidents are motivated by moral courage. At worst, they are motivated by the prospect of book sales. In both cases, they are likely to be branded as traitors.

Consider Paul O’Neill, George W. Bush’s first Treasury secretary. He had to resign because as early as 2002 he warned of enormous budget deficits unless the White House sharply raised taxes and instituted major spending cuts.

To Bush’s inner circle, truth-telling about taxes was seen as unforgiveable disloyalty. Mr. O’Neill was let go for breaking the party line, regardless of how economically wise his recommendations may have been.

O’Neill later penned a memoir taking Bush to task for failing to act intelligently in cabinet meetings and for discouraging dissenting opinion among his advisers. Bush supporters responded, not by denying his allegations, but by attacking O’Neill’s credibility.

Even though dissenters are so often demonized like this, I’ve seen that history can vindicate the work of insiders who speak out to expose the flaws of a misguided policy agenda.

Enoch Powell, a brilliant pre-Thatcher Conservative member of the British Parliament, warned in 1968 of sharp increases in crime, poverty, and violence stemming from uncontrolled immigration. Mr. Powell, a shadow cabinet minister in Edward Heath’s government, was rebuked and dismissed for this “Rivers of Blood” speech.

Today, as Britain grapples with urban Muslim ghettos and the spate of home-grown terror attacks by children of Pakistani immigrants, Powell is often honored posthumously as a prophet and remembered as such by more than a few Englishmen.

It seems that generals are most prone to shooting themselves in the foot. Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov was the highest-ranking Soviet Army officer at the time his Kremlin bosses secretly decided to invade Afghanistan.

Believing it was a terrible mistake, Ogarkov stormed in to see his boss, Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov, warning him that the Brezhnev regime was embarking on a military blunder.

Mr. Ustinov cut him off at the knees: “Your job is to plan specific operations and carry them out.... Shut up and obey orders.”

It is perhaps a given that many of us feel impelled to say things even when we know it will land us in hot water.

Free speech has well-defined limits in the military, in government, and in the workplace. But what if your boss’s agenda endangers the company’s bottom line, or national security? Then only wisdom and conscience can guide.

Being courageous sometimes carries a reward, but don’t be naive; a self-righteous “but I’m right” leads to poor job security.

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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