It’s true that most of the negative remarks were attributed to staffers rather than to McChrystal himself. And it’s true that none of them amounts to insubordination or refusal to carry out orders, the offense for which Gens. George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur were appropriately fired.
But a commander has the responsibility of setting the tone of his subordinates. And it is astonishing that a general would give such ready access to a writer from Rolling Stone, especially one who is, as the article makes clear, a skeptic about the general’s strategy.
Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman correctly noted that McChrystal’s comments "are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between the commander in chief and the military." And that "the decision concerning Gen. McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the President of the United States."
It surely must have been an excruciating decision for President Obama. He installed McChrystal in his post after removing his predecessor, and he largely agreed to his strategy last December after a three-month review — though he added a July 2011 deadline for the start of troop withdrawals.
Like most American presidents, and like all presidents during the last 50 years, Obama came to office with little preparation for being commander in chief.
Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and both Bushes had served in the military, but not at a level that gave them much insight in evaluating military commanders. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush as governors commanded state National Guard units, but that’s nothing like commanding the world’s largest military forces.
Unfortunately, there’s not much correlation between the skill set needed to win the Iowa caucuses and the Super Tuesday primaries and that needed to decide on military strategies and to select the appropriate commanders for different military operations.
Obama’s decision making on Afghanistan so far could be characterized as splitting the difference. He added troops early on and opted for McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy while propitiating his party’s left with something in the nature of a deadline for withdrawal.
While backing McChrystal, he also appointed as our civilian leader in Afghanistan retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who disagreed with McChrystal’s strategy. By all accounts, including Rolling Stone’s, they have not had the close cooperative relationship that Gen. David Petraeus and civilian honcho Ryan Crocker had in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.
A president is entitled to take political factors into consideration in making military decisions. Franklin Roosevelt, who of all our presidents showed the greatest gift for selecting the right general or admiral for particular assignments, ordered the invasion of North Africa in 1942 against the unanimous advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He believed that the American people and our allies needed to see America taking decisive action in the European Theater, even in a peripheral location.
Obama leads a political party that before his election argued that Afghanistan was the good war (and Iraq the bad one) but which is now divided on whether we should persevere there. He faces an opposition party that mostly supports our course in Afghanistan but is worried about our prospects there and fears a premature withdrawal.
He is not the first president to head a national security establishment that is divided and distrustful, as the Rolling Stone article confirms. And he is surely not the first president to be the subject of disparaging remarks by his military subordinates.
But unfortunately those remarks have come out into the open in a way that makes it very hard to go on splitting the difference. With Gen. McChrystal gone, it may be time to consider other changes in personnel.
And it may be time for Obama to embrace a word he has been reluctant to utter: victory. His duty is to set a course that will produce success, to install the people who can achieve that goal and to give them the backing they need.
We didn’t need this, and Barack Obama didn’t, either. But he wanted the job, and now he must command.