By David Bauder
NEW YORK – Even Rolling Stone’s editor agreed with Gen. Stanley McChrystal that the Afghan war’s U.S. commander showed poor judgment in airing complaints about the Obama administration in the magazine.
But Eric Bates said it was in keeping with McChrystal’s character that he didn’t try to waffle about what was said in the article, which exploded into a political controversy that threatened the general’s job. Bates said the piece accurately reflected what McChrystal and his team feel about the job they’ve been given in Afghanistan.
The inside view of the country’s command in Afghanistan was a coup for the magazine. While best known for its coverage of rock ‘n’ roll, Rolling Stone has a provocative history covering politics and government that dates back to the Vietnam War and Hunter S. Thompson’s irreverent trips on the presidential campaign trail.
The article, “The Runaway General,” was posted on the magazine’s website last Tuesday, a day earlier than planned because of the attention it was receiving. McChrystal is quoted as saying he “found that time painful” when President Barack Obama took three months to review the Afghan war strategy. The story quoted an unnamed aide to the general as saying his boss was disappointed that Obama “didn’t seem very engaged” about the war.
It also depicted McChrystal as not wanting to open an e-mail from Richard Holbrooke, the special U.S. representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“I think that they know that this is a fair representation of their perspective,” Bates said.
He said he wasn’t surprised that McChrystal took responsibility for the article and publicly apologized for the interviews.
“When questioned about the piece itself, he said this was poor judgment, which I think is indisputable, and took the bullet, which is very much in keeping with the kind of soldier he sees himself as,” Bates said.
He said the article’s author, Michael Hastings, was assigned a piece on what the U.S. was doing in Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of the military leaders. Bates said he knew upon seeing a first draft a month ago that Hastings gathered some important material.
Hastings also had a stroke of luck: After joining McChrystal and his team in Paris for an appearance, the general’s plane to Berlin was grounded by the Icelandic volcano. “They had to take a bus,” Bates said. “So it turned into a bit of a road trip.”
Some of the article’s most biting comments came from McChrystal aides who were granted anonymity in Hasting’s piece. But Bates said McChrystal was present when many of the comments were made. “Even the quotes that he wasn’t in the room for clearly reflect his thinking and were clearly given with his blessing,” he said.
The military leaders knew they were speaking to a working reporter, Bates said.
“I had a tape recorder and notepad out the entire time,” Hastings told CNN on Tuesday, “so it was all very clear that it was on the record.”
Hastings said most of the material he gathered from McChrystal and his team came within the first day or two of arriving in Paris, so it wasn’t as if he spent months building a relationship with them.
The article describes a night out at an Irish pub, where much of McChrystal’s team got drunk.
Rolling Stone’s fact checkers discussed the substance of some of the quotations with the sources before the article was printed, Bates said. But the magazine did not give any of them a chance to read the piece ahead of time or revise quotes, he said.
Bates dismissed any suggestion that McChrystal was deliberately trying to torpedo his own command with the article. McChrystal has a history of speaking his mind, sometimes to his detriment, such as when he was quoted last fall criticizing a strategy being pushed by Vice President Joe Biden.
“There are far easier ways of doing that, if that’s what you want to do, and more dignified ways,” Bates said.
The article was reminiscent of an Atlantic Monthly piece in the early days of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, when his budget director David Stockman was quoted questioning some of what his boss was trying to do. Stockman said later he was “taken to the woodshed” for his comments.
Bates said he hoped legitimate questions about what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan aren’t overshadowed by questions over the wisdom of what McChrystal did in granting access to Rolling Stone’s reporter. Bates wouldn’t comment on what the article might do for the general’s career.
“That’s all above my pay grade,” he said. “We’ve done our part of the job.”