The World War II slogan "Loose Lips Sink Ships," which was intended to encourage Americans to keep quiet about any information pertaining to that war, could also apply to modern generals and their staffs.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal's mistake was not indulging in -- and allowing his aides to indulge in -- locker room guy talk; his "mistake in judgment" was allowing a writer for Rolling Stone apparently unrestricted and prolonged access to him and his aides. A liberal White House won't allow access by conservative writers.
Rich Galen was a press secretary to former Vice President Dan Quayle when he was a congressman and senator and to Newt Gingrich when he was House Republican Whip. In 1996, Galen then became the communications director of the political office of Speaker Gingrich. On his "Mullings" blog, he writes of his "excellent association with reporters" because he says he adhered to three rules: 1) I have never sold out my boss to curry favor with the press; 2) I have never lied to the press to protect my boss; 3) If I don't know an answer, I say so. I don't pretend to be on the 'inside' of every discussion ever held in Washington." Gen. McChrystal obviously disregarded rule one.
Galen thinks McChrystal deserved to be fired, even though only one rather innocuous quote was attributed to him in the Rolling Stone article. The rest are more serious comments by unnamed aides. The bigger question is: Who set up this interview and what was that person's motive? When will that person be fired?
McChrystal's predicament is partially about the chain of command and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which spells out insubordination as a firing offense. Mostly, though, it is about whether this war is winnable and the consequences if it is not.
Losing in Afghanistan would have severe costs for America. The planning center for Sept. 11, 2001, would be reinvigorated. Recruiting for more homicide bombers would be easier. The radical Muslim world would be convinced that "Allah" truly is on their side against "The Great Satan." Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would see defeat as proof that his god wants him to proceed with his announced plans to usher in "Armageddon."
Are any of those plausible actions worth the risk of losing the war in Afghanistan?
It isn't that McChrystal was the indispensible man. Replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus was the president's best option after deciding to relieve McChrystal. But President Obama did select McChrystal to lead the effort to defeat the Taliban and so any "errors in judgment" should not be limited to McChrystal. If the president picked the "wrong man," what does that say about his judgment?
All of these questions will be forgotten if the U.S. prevails in Afghanistan by establishing a sustainable democratic government that is relatively free of corruption and can be converted from an opium-based economy to one that can take advantage of its enormous mineral resources.
To win in Afghanistan, and make such things possible, our "rules of engagement" must change. American casualties have increased because of self-imposed restraints when encountering Taliban who hide behind civilians. You can't win a war by hesitating. To paraphrase a familiar admonition: Grab them by their throats and their hearts and minds will follow.
McChrystal seemed to be making progress in the shooting war. He failed by shooting off his mouth. But if everyone who has ever said a disparaging word about the boss were fired, no one would have a job.
Contact Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.