The McChrystal Mess
The general is guilty of bad judgment, not policy insubordination.
The political rush was on yesterday, from the left and right, to urge President Obama to exert his command over the military by firing General Stanley McChrystal for an impolitic interview with Rolling Stone magazine. But our advice would be that the President put any personal pique aside in favor of asking whether sacking General McChrystal on the eve of a crucial military offensive would help or—more likely—hurt the war effort in Afghanistan.
This is not to say that the General doesn't deserve to be taken, as Ronald Reagan once did to budget director David Stockman, to the White House "woodshed" for his media indiscretions. Why any U.S. officer, much less such a senior one, would invite an antiwar correspondent from an antiwar magazine into his inner councils is one for the PR history books. There's no excuse for military officers to show such disrespect for civilian leaders, including U.S. ambassadors, and especially to a Vice President and Commander in Chief.
These are errors in judgment, albeit of a distinctly political kind in which the General's aides had not been sufficiently trained. It speaks to a failure by General McChrystal to instruct his team on the crucial political nature of modern generalship, and a staff housecleaning on that score is plainly in order.
Yet it's also important to note that the General's own observations about Mr. Obama (attributed to unnamed sources) are limited to a claim that he thought the President looked "uncomfortable and intimidated" at a meeting with military brass, and that he was disappointed by the 10 minutes he got with Mr. Obama in their first one-on-one meeting. These are not flattering, and the President will no doubt demand an explanation.
But they are not differences over war strategy or policy. They are not, in other words, the same kind of challenge to civilian control of the military represented by Douglas MacArthur's criticism of President Truman's policy in Korea, or by former Centcom Commander William Fallon's rebuke of Bush Administration policy toward Iran. On the contrary, General McChrystal has been both apostle and executor of the Afghan counterinsurgency strategy that Mr. Obama settled on last year. Centcom Commander and General David Petraeus aside, General McChrystal is that strategy's best advocate.
If the Rolling Stone article exposes the frathouse antics of some of the General's aides, it also makes clear that the General himself is a remarkably capable officer who inspires profound loyalty and confidence from his soldiers. This is in part because he is a fighting general, not a bureaucratic one, who earned this respect killing terrorists by the thousands in Iraq as the leader of the Joint Special Operations Command. Over U.S. history, some of our best war fighters—U.S. Grant, George Patton, MacArthur—have also been the least diplomatic.
U.S. and NATO forces are currently in a hard fight to control Marja and on the eve of even bigger battle for Kandahar. No individual is irreplaceable, but Mr. Obama needs to ask if he can do without his main commander in the middle of this Afghan surge campaign. If firing General McChrystal will demoralize the men and women fighting those campaigns, then it would be a mistake for Mr. Obama's own war strategy to do so.
It matters, too, that General McChrystal seems to have the confidence of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's difficult President, who yesterday came out with his support. This relationship is all the more crucial given that most Administration officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Karl Eikenberry, get along so poorly with Mr. Karzai.
Above all, the President should think beyond short-term political appearances to the difficult hand his own policy restraints have presented to General McChrystal. We have supported Mr. Obama's strategy, but there is no denying his obvious ambivalence to what he once called a "war of necessity." He has invested little political capital in selling it to the American public, and his July 2011 deadline for the beginning of a withdrawal betrays his political doubts.
He has also given General McChrystal fewer troops than he wanted, with Mr. Obama's surge bringing overall U.S. troop strength to 98,000, far fewer than the upwards of 170,000 or so who succeeded in stabilizing Iraq.
This is no justification for military disrespect, but it ought to make Mr. Obama think twice about advice that he sack General McChrystal merely so he doesn't look weak as Commander in Chief. He'll look a lot weaker in a year if his Afghan policy looks like a failure. With a war in the balance, Mr. Obama should not dismiss his most talented commander without knowing who, and what, comes next.