Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Walter Rodgers

McChrystal lesson: the price of criticizing your boss

Insiders who speak out often suffer the fate of prophets.

By Walter Rodgers / July 6, 2010


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.

Skip to next paragraph

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.”

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.