Not In Charge

President Obama should fire General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, for a highly impolitic interview Gen. McChrystal gave to Rolling Stone magazine (of all places) mocking the Vice President and the U.S. Ambassador in Afghanistan, among others, and making evident his disdain for the Administration’s civilian management of the war effort. Obama should fire him – but he’s painted himself into a corner in which doing so would be damaging to him politically and to the nation’s war effort. Let’s review why.
When Barack Obama came into office, he had an Afghanistan problem. Obama had won crucial credibility with the anti-war Left, and thus the Democratic presidential nomination, by opposing (at times) the Iraq War. At the same time, he marketed himself as being serious about national security by touting his support for the war in Afghanistan. Coming into office, he needed to reassure the military, the Afghan government and other U.S. allies, and the existing domestic supporters of the Afghan war (many of whom were Republicans unenthused about supporting any Obama initiative) that he was really serious. Complicating matters, the Democrats had spent the prior several years building a narrative in which the Bush Administration had sinned by not listening to criticism from the brass, and in which military men like Gen. Eric Shinseki (now Secretary of Veterans Affairs) were all but sainted for publicly splitting with the Bush Administration’s war management. Obama, having little credibility of his own on national security matters, could scarcely hope to survive a public battle with his own military leadership.
Obama got off to a rough start. First of all, he came to office with no executive experience, no national security experience (in the Senate he’d never bothered holding hearings on the subcommittee he chaired overseeing Afghanistan) and no military service record; his Vice President, while schooled in foreign affairs, was likewise a career legislator with no military service record, ditto his Secretary of State. He ended up with yet another legislator running the CIA after his first choice was seen by the Left as too tied to the intelligence community. To balance this team out (Presidents always lack something and need balance from their advisers, but Obama lacked more than most), he had to lean heavily on holdovers: he kept Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and gave wide latitude to General David Petraeus, architect of the Iraq War surge that Obama, Biden and Clinton had opposed with varying levels of scorn. He also picked a military man (Gen. James Jones) as his National Security Advisor, although that has worked out poorly.
Then, as I detailed back in September, Obama backed off his original promises for more troops in Afghanistan and sacked the commander there, General David McKiernan, in May 2009 after McKiernan asked for more troops. McKiernan was replaced with General Stanley McChrystal, a blunt-spoken counterinsurgency specialist and ally of General Petraeus who had something of a track record – known to those around him – of speaking out of turn.
McChrystal quickly lived up to that reputation, with speeches and an assessment of the Afghan situation (leaked to the public) that increased the public heat on Obama to come up with more troops for the mission. McChrystal’s actions at the time tiptoed up to the line of undermining the all-important chain of command, but they were also critical to moving the public and the President in support of the war effort. The President eventually gave in, delivering a substantial troop surge, albeit one with a good deal fewer forces than McKiernan or McChrystal had asked for and with a bunch of promises to his own supporters about withdrawal timetables.
Now, months later, McChrystal has plowed over that line, and done so for no such obviously good purposes, and with plenty of notice about what the article would look like. Military men in a theater of war are prone to strong opinions, and it’s hard to say that Vice President Biden and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, among others, haven’t earned Gen. McChrystal’s contempt. But doing so in public is insubordination, plain and simple, and completely inconsistent with our tradition of a chain of command and civilian control of the military. A military man who wants to open both barrels in public against the political leadership has a time-honored way to do that: resign his commission and enter politics. As Harry Truman understood when he fired Douglas MacArthur – then a national hero – at great political cost, a president who doesn’t show the generals who is boss is no longer running anything. That’s bad for civilian-military relations and bad for the president’s and the nation’s credibility, as subordinates learn they can get away with more and allies and enemies wonder who they should listen to. While it speaks well of Gen. McChrystal that the Afghan government is publicly backing him, a president who lets foreign governments, even key allies, have any say in picking his own military officers has lost face he can’t recover.
So, to preserve his own credibility and authority and secure the chain of command, Obama must fire General McChrystal. But doing so isn’t so easy. As Dan Foster notes, the conclusion of the prior dust-up over troop strength showed that much of the public’s trust in Obama was based on the credibility of McChrystal’s recommendations. The champions of Gen. Shinseki will look – rightly – like contemptible hypocrites for sacking a distinguished commander for saying what he thinks. The troops in the field, always prone to regard civilian meddling as foolhardy, may regard the firing of a blunt commander – barely a year after the last commander was sacked after disagreeing with the White House – as a sign that the civilian leadership can’t take some hurt feelings. Obama is also simultaneously cruising for a divisive showdown over ending Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a change that is sure to be opposed in at least some corners of the military. More significantly, in the short run, McChrystal’s experience and expertise may be hard to replace overnight.
And worst of all for Obama, a credible declare-victory-and-begin-to-draw-down scenario, as was attained by the success of the surge in Iraq by mid-2008, is not on the horizon:

Underlying everything is a far bigger problem. Obama’s strategy of shifting the military’s focus – and 30,000 troops – from Iraq to Afghanistan hasn’t yet yielded a major breakthrough.
The disaster in the Gulf has obscured a steadily increasing drumbeat of bad news and ill omens on Afghanistan. After mixed results in the campaign to re-take Marja, the Pentagon was forced to delay a critical summer offensive in Kandahar, the cradle of the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Earlier this year simmering tensions between the administration and Afghan President Hamid Karzai broke into the open with U.S. officials sharply criticizing Karzai on issues ranging from corruption and nepotism to the fitness of the country’s fighting forces to electoral reform – set against the backdrop of a resurgent Taliban.
That lack of tangible success seems to be splitting official Washington, slowly but inexorably, into hawks and doves camps, with Gates bearing the flag for those who favor a relatively open-ended large-scale commitment of troops with Vice President Joe Biden and others pushing for a far more scaled down approach and Obama himself somewhere in the middle.
People close to Obama say the president recognizes the crisis isn’t just about any one general, but recalibrating policy after a delay of the summer offensive in Kandahar and harmonizing a fractious team of military and civilian advisers.

Whether Obama chooses to start abandoning the war effort or again to face down calls from his own base to do so, he will need the credible backing of trusted military leaders – and shoving out the architect of the current plan (who may well respond by issuing blunter critiques from the outside if he’s pushed out) and bringing in a third commander in Afghanistan in 14 months is no way to win confidence from the public, the military or our allies.
These are tough decisions, and precisely why the presidency is not suited for on-the-job training for people who have never run anything before, or for politicians like President Obama who have built up no basis for trusting them on critical issues of national security. Obama has been walking a very narrow tightrope on Afghanistan, supported largely by the generals. He may be about to fall off.

18 thoughts on “Not In Charge”

  1. I don’t think GOFO’s should be mistreated, but a mistake several presidents have made is being too deferential to military leaders. It can be reasonably argued that many lives have been lost due to a reluctance to fire an officer who exceeded his authority or grown too big for his britches. The capital in DC was nearly burned to the ground in 1814 partly due to the arrogance of General Armstrong who refused to listen to Sec. State Monroe. The Civil War was nearly lost due to the timidity of McClellan. I’m no supporter of President Obama, but he has to fire McChrystal both for insubordination as well as the demonstrated poor judgment (voting for Obama & talking to Rolling Stone). Our nation has avoided the military coups of other young countries mainly because of the strong belief in civilian control and oversight of the military.

  2. This issue is not that tough, and it certainly does not fit into your ongoing narrative on Obama’s lack of experience. Obama does not need the “confidence” of our military (or our allies for that matter), they know how to execute a plan. He just needs a general who knows how to keep his mouth shut.
    The key issue for Obama, apart from the delay of Kandahar, is how the new information on Afghanistan’s mineral wealth impacts his assessment on the importance of Afghanistan, and the rather obvious financial consequences of expanding our efforts there should he choose to do so. It’s a tradeoff that any leader would face, regardless of experience.
    It’s clear that most on the right favor an expansion of our war in Afghanistan without a timeline for getting out, and they are too willing to characterize any choice Obama makes differently as some kind of leadership flaw. Has the right forgotten that Biden is in the mix in all this, whose experience on foreign affairs was not questioned when he was selected as VP?
    Trying to force this into an “experience” narrative is forcing a square peg into a round hole.

  3. This is pretty straightforward – McCrystal needs to go. It doesn’t even matter if he’s right. When you start thinking a general is indispensible (and, even more so, when he does) it’s exactly the time to fire him.

  4. MVH,
    Actually, Biden’s expertise in foreign affairs (and his fitness for higher office) was questioned after he was selected as the running mate. He’s been around the senate forever and been on committees dealing with foreign relations. However, his judgment on most issues has been somewhere between suspect to laughable.
    Biden fools the easily fooled because he speaks with the bluster of a confidence man. Here is just one example of him just making stuff up. It is from his debate with Palin.
    Anyone with a search engine can come up with hundreds more examples.
    As far as whether this is a result of electing someone with no experience to serve as president, it obviously plays some part. However, that is McChrystal’s problem. In the military we don’t get to choose our boss. That is true for a grizzled old Chief irritated by working for an boot Ensign right out of ROTC and it is equally true for a Four Star General less than thrilled by who the people elected as CinC. He is expected and required to respect the CinC regardless of his personal opinion of the man in the office. He should never betray his personal feeling about a superior to a subordinate and he did. That is unacceptable from a senior officer and he should be retired. We can always get another General.

  5. If McCrystal is the best man for the job, Obama should shred him verbally, bring in Admiral Mullen and the Comandant of the Marines and tell them that they are directly responsible for keeping McCrystal in line. This way, he exerts control over the military and doesn’t let McCrystal avoid his duty.

  6. Largebill,
    I know what you’re saying regarding Biden, I don’t regard him as the second coming of Henry Kissinger, but he’s not -inexperienced- in foreign policy in the way that Obama is, and that’s my point. And Biden’s only one person. As with any president, Obama is surrounded by any number of people with experience in foreign policy, both military and civilian.
    Even among very experienced people in foreign affairs, opinions are going to differ about how involved we should get in Afghanistan. Have a legitimate debate over policy choices, by all means, but characterizing it as an experience issue fails.

  7. Can you imagine how President Toonces would handle his domestic opposition undermining him day after day over war policy? The Left would have cheered any general who spoke out against Bush.
    This featherweight narcissist has the support of the Left, the media (BIRM) and the Right when it comes to Afghanistan. And yet he has lost the respect of everybody he needs to win.
    Heckuva job, Toonces!

  8. Obama shit canned his ass, as well he should. The guy will be lucky to escape courtmartialing which the code calls for. I anxiously await Crank praising Obama in his next post. Yeah right.

  9. As much as I hate to say it, McCrystal has to go. If he does not have the good judgement to not criticize the administration in public, he probably doesn’t have the judgement to run the war. He certainly has the right to his opinion, but feeling expressed in private are much different than opinions expressed in Rolling Stone.

  10. Well, McChrystal is gone. Now he won’t be the scapegoat when the plug is pulled on the A-Stan effort. Looks like Petraeus will be the one holding the bag.

  11. Was McChrystal second star confirmed? If not expect him to lose a star and be given a crappy next assignment to force him to retire at a lower rank. But overall this guy has a huge pair, first the Pat Tillman thing and now breaking all military protocol and publicly ripping the CinC over no real war issues just petty stuff. Not only did he end his career but his entire staff careers are over, very poor leadership. But then again this has to be Obama’s fault right Crank.

  12. I’m sure the $30 billion we are spending annually in A-Stan is money well spent. Of course, no one else really thinks that but why not cling to that idea?

  13. The McChrystal Affair is unique because both Obama and McChrystal were faced with an identical problem. Obama was faced with a general who publicly questioned his judgment on the pages of Rolling Stone and Hastings reports that McChrystal was faced with troops who publicly questioned his judgment. But Obama and McChrystal handled the problem in totally different manners.
    As we know Obama ordered MsChrystal to the Oval Office. Next, Obama talked for 20 minutes. Then, he fired McChrystal. There were no reporters present.
    Hastings reports that McChrystal went to the troops and sought out their questions and explained the reasoning behind his orders, then asked for comments and answered those as well.
    Doesn’t command involve more than giving orders and demanding obedience?

  14. “Doesn’t command involve more than giving orders and demanding obedience?”
    Yea, but if you are an amateur like the ‘Bamster that is all you can do.
    I am hoping for change!

  15. sol,
    “Doesn’t command involve more than giving orders and demanding obedience?”
    A general, who already understands the strategy, giving an interview in Rolling Stone criticizing it, is completely different than answering questions to relatively uninformed troops. It’s worse by several orders of magnitude and does not require a public Q&A by Obama.
    jim – I don’t mind the money we are spending currently in Afghanistan – that’s where the bad guys are. The tougher question is do we do anything more than that, a question now complicated by the mineral wealth there. Do you really want to see all that mineral wealth at the disposal of a regime that harbors terrorists and could use that money to further destabilize the Middle East as well??
    My problem with the right in general is that mineral wealth notwithstanding, it seems to favor regime change and all-out military intervention wherever terrorists seem to be hiding. At some point, the right has to realize that there are any number of shadowy countries into which terrorists can retreat, and we can’t keep pursuing regime change in all of them.

  16. From what is being published lately the thinking is that other than the actual “president” of Afghanistan there aren’t the bad guys we were initially after there any longer. The more that comes out about it the more it sounds like a sinkhole.

  17. More seems to be coming out about the Rolling Stone article (
    McChrystal might have been ordered by higher ups to give the reporter access and then the reporter used “off the record” background material in the article. What a member of the liberal media violating agreements to “stick it” to a member of the military-what a shocker!
    I finally got to read the article ( and saw the reporter stuffed it full of his own opinions (like usual) such as:
    “to keep up the fiction, in essence, that we actually have allies”
    “Although McChrystal has been in charge of the war for only a year, in that short time he has managed to piss off almost everyone with a stake in the conflict.”
    This was just the first few paragraphs.
    As I read thru the article, the reporter used “private” conversation he was given access to to portray McChrystal as badly as he could. Sure some of the things the reporter says McChrystal and his aides said are not too nice, but these were private conversation among a team-not to be shared in public.
    Most of the strongest quotes were from aides, not McChrystal himself.
    IMHO, McChrystal’s (and his aides) main error was allowing a reporter to hear them. They should have clammed up when the reporter was around.
    In the end, the press claims another scalp.

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