Mullen says the military still needs the media

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 27, 2010


For the military, it's like a grisly death in the family: How did Gen. Stanley McChrystal, one of the most respected soldiers of his generation, blow himself up in a magazine profile? It's a puzzle to McChrystal's colleagues here, and understandably, there's a new wariness in dealing with the media.

The relationship between the military and the press could probably use a little adjustment. The Rolling Stone article was a wake-up call for both sides that the coziness that has evolved over the past decade, as "embedding" of reporters became more widespread, can cause problems. Now there's likely to be a tilt back toward more traditional ground rules and a little more distance. We'll see whether that leads to better reporting or just a chillier relationship.

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew here Saturday to reassure senior U.S. civilian and military leaders, as well as Afghan President Hamid Karzai, after the traumatic firing of McChrystal. Mullen promised continuity in the U.S. war effort under Gen. David Petraeus.

Mullen told military and civilian audiences that he hopes that the episode won't lead the military to hunker down. He told a gathering of U.S. embassy staffers: "We need to tell our story. It needs to be done well. It needs to be told smartly. We need to learn the right lessons, not the wrong ones."

In a video-conference from Kabul with military and civilian officials around Afghanistan, Mullen cautioned: "Don't overreact; don't over-adjust. Don't shy away from the press."

Some military officials have complained that Rolling Stone improperly used off-the-record material in its "Runaway General" profile. But Mullen didn't debate this here. For him, the central issue is that critical comments by McChrystal and his aides about the Obama administration challenged the "sacrosanct" principle of civilian control of the military, regardless of ground rules set with the reporter.

Mullen addressed the underlying issue highlighted by the story -- the dissonance and friction between military and civilian officials involved in Afghanistan policy. He told both groups that unless they made civilian-military cooperation work, "we are going to fail."

McChrystal was a popular commander, and Mullen began each of his meetings by talking about the general. "He is crushed" by what happened, Mullen said, but as a soldier he would insist that those who remain in Kabul get on with the war effort.

Mullen acknowledged on his way here that there have been some recent setbacks in the Afghan campaign. "We underestimated some of the challenges" in Marja, the rural area of Helmand province that was cleared in March by U.S. Marines, only to have Taliban fighters return. "They're coming back at night, the intimidation is still there," he said. Of the campaign to stabilize Kandahar, which McChrystal decided last month to delay, he said: "It's going to take until the end of the year to know where we are" there.

Even before the McChrystal blow-up, Mullen had been discussing with aides whether to recommend changes in the military's approach to public affairs. He has been a skeptic about the broad new "strategic communications" approach, which sees the media as a tool in bending public opinion in protracted counterinsurgency campaigns. Instead, he prefers a more traditional approach to public affairs, in which military spokesmen provide as much information as possible, and offer access to the media, but without the "stratcom" ambitions and dangers.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company