McChrystal's Lesson: Trampling Constitution A-Okay, Using Mean Words Is Not

Late last year and early this year, I wrote a series of syndicated newspaper columns (here and here) about how General Stanley McChrystal was permitted to effectively give orders to his commander-in-chief about what the Afghanistan war policy should and should not be. As I argued, this was a major affront to the spirit - if not the letter - of the constitution and the military's chain of command. And yet, at the time, few - if any - political voices called for McChrystal to be fired or to resign.

Of course, after McChrystal was this week quoted in Rolling Stone personally disparaging various Obama administration officials, those calls for firing/resignation are everywhere, including from unnamed Obama administration sources, and they seem to have had an effect. This disparity in reactions to McChrystal's statements a year ago and today, then, gives us a very clear idea of what the Obama administration and the larger political/media class considers - and does not consider - a fireable offense.

What we now know is that generals are fully permitted to publicly challenge the constitutional authority of the president and the elected civilian leadership of the United States. That is not a fireable offense. What is a fireable offense is a general using petty or mean language in describing the elected civilian leadership whose power he is unconstitutionally usurping.

How can we explain this disparity? Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't it be an automatic fireable offense to defy the constitution, but a relatively minor offense to use mean language?

Sure, it should. But it's not because Washington - as it is often accurately described - is truly one big high school, with each major political battle really a gossipy scuffle between cliques of Kool Kids. In that high school, the worst offenses aren't violations of the ironclad rules, but violations of interpersonal social etiquette. Indeed, you can freely violate the rules as long as you do it in a way that honors the etiquette.

That is the real lesson of McChrsytal - according to the political class, his career mistake wasn't trampling democracy and destroying 200 years of constitutional tradition, it was simply being not very nice. In our corrupt political culture, that's the only transgression that's not allowed.