Will McChrystal Become the Next MacArthur?

The leak of a classified report by Gen. Stanley McChrystal – commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan pointing to an all-but-certain “mission failure” in Afghanistan if additional US troops aren’t sent there — may signal a major break between the Obama administration and the Pentagon.

The leak to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward of the McChrystal report, dated August 30, came after the Obama administration apparently tried to bury the report for almost a month and then attempted to delay McChrystal’s later dispatch that would request a specific level of reinforcements for his command.

The close relationships between presidents and their generals have played an important role in American history. Some have been close relationships based on mutual respect and confidence. The most notable exception to this rule, of course, was General Douglas MacArthur, the former WWII war hero fired by Truman in 1951 after repeatedly pushing an agenda in Korea independent of the President’s will.

Today a similar dichotomy is emerging: between the will of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of United States Forces in Afghanistan, and that of President Barack Obama, a commander in chief who actively ran on an anti-war platform and who can claim no significant military experience.

“I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way– you know, sending a message that America– is here for– for the duration,” the president said during a media blitz last Sunday. That message, however, is exactly what McChrystal says needs to be sent, and quickly, if the tide is to be turned in our favor.

“[We must] signal unwavering commitment” to the defeat of the enemy, McChrystal says in the summary of the COMISAF’S Initial Assessment. The 66 page newly de-classified document has been obtained by HUMAN EVENTS and can be read in its entirety here. (pdf)

Obama has repeatedly urged the significance of strategy before other considerations. The general has clearly accepted this challenge, laying out a detailed counter insurgency, or COIN, plan for implementation in Afghanistan. Why, then, did the president urge the military to hold off on requesting more troops until a later date?

“You can be sure that the initial McChrystal request will not be rubber stamped without a lot of scrutiny,” said one senior administration official. “The bar is not unclearable for major increases — but it’s set pretty high.”

Scrutiny is one thing, but wasting valuable time in pursuit of an academic exercise is another entirely. The taste of Bush has yet to leave the sensitive pallet of the liberal base, and Obama is sensitive to ordering what could be seen as “the second surge,” essentially canonizing a Bush strategy which some liberals still refuse to approve of, despite all evidence.

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) defended Obama’s actions this week by again reminding us that Obama is not Bush. "He’s just in the chain of command, and there’s higher-ups," Levin said. "This is not a situation like General Petraeus in Iraq, when the president basically said, whatever the commander in Iraq wants, he’s going to get."

Has the senator forgotten that it was this subordination of military strategy to political posturing that put us on the wrong track in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place? Relying heavily on Petraeus saved Iraq (at least for a time), and current leaders would be foolish not to accept this lesson from the Bush era.

Most disconcerting is the dichotomy between current action and past talk from this White House. In March, the White House announced, to great fanfare, a new approach in Afghanistan, that of a fully-resourced counter insurgency campaign.

Nearly six months later there has been no action on any strategy approaching this goal, even now after McChrystal’s report. The president urges patience, but many question his true motivations.

“After asking for General McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment, it now appears President Obama has buyer’s remorse,” said Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Congress needs to hear directly from General McChrystal to ensure political motivations here in Washington don’t override the needs of our commanders on the ground.”

The McChrystal v. Obama drama has not yet reached its denouement, so any comparison to MacArthur v. Truman is still remote. All the same, the parallels are compelling.

McChrystal’s team has followed the leak, which most experts agree he must have known about, if not approved of, with a second shot across Obama’s bow. This time, according to reports, three senior military officers close to McChrystal have claimed he is prepared to resign if he isn’t given the resources he needs for success.

The lessons of history are clear. No president can allow repeated flagrant disobedience by his top general during wartime. History has vindicated Truman for his firing of MacArthur, and for good reason.

There is a vital divergence between Obama’s issue and Truman’s. We are no longer engaged in a cold war. McChrystal is not demanding we risk a third world war by attacking a sovereign nation outside of the immediate theater of war, as MacArthur did. McChrystal is demanding we follow through on our commitments, publicly formulated by this president only months ago.

As stated by the general himself, “the insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.”