Thoughts on the McChrystal Ouster
Lets dispense with some caveats here. I did not vote for Obama for President nor do I support the majority of his ideas or policies. I have commented on the stupidity of Obamacare as an expensive intrusion on the liberty of the American public that achieves very little in the way of decreasing health care costs. Nor do I like his energy “policy” and I think global warming (at least man-made) is a publicity stunt by an ex-Vice President still smarting from 2000. In fact, there is very little I like about Obama’s policies. I always contended that he was a closet liberal, but not necessarily a socialist per se as some argue. He was a work in progress- a blank slate still be written upon by North Shore Chicago liberal political hacks. His tenure in the Senate was basically a campaign for President as evidenced by his lack of legislative achievement. Although he supposedly surrounds himself with people designed to create lively debate within the administration, when push comes to shove, he and the liberals will prevail- even given incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Unlike some readers here, I believe Obama is an American citizen and I do not need to see a copy of his birth certificate. I don’t care about his middle name let alone his first and last name, the color of his skin, what church he goes to, what books he read in high school or whether he went to grammar school for a year in Indonesia. Summarily, I am no fan of Obama nor will I be in 2012 even if the Republican Party pits Willy the Wonder Donkey against him.
I am a great fan of the United States Constitution. Despite its supposed flaws, it is still the operational framework of the greatest country on earth. I have deep respect for the compromises that are enshrined in the document many years ago. When errors were made, like slavery, the people responded in words and acts up to and including a brutal civil war to correct those wrongs. And a very big debate and one I feel that despite its sometimes controversial conflicts was over civilian control of the military. Our founders were very fearful of standing armies. But if there was to be one, they opted for the lesser of two evils and placed it ultimately under civilian control by designating the President as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. One very important aspect of the military is its emphasis on discipline. There is a very important and distinct chain of command ultimately ending at the top with the civilian Secretary of Defense and the civilian President. A colonel does not give orders to a general and a general does not give orders to a President. Unless you want to the change the Constitution, that is the way it is. Of course, we could always change the Commander-in-Chief and we have that option every four years guaranteed by the Constitution.
There have been numerous examples in American history of generals not being in agreement with directives of the President. While the inevitable correlations between Truman and MacArthur are being bandied about, they involved vast geopolitical concerns that a President, not a general must consider when waging war. Were the Chinese lending troops and material support to the Communists in Korea? There is no doubt this happened. But MacArthur’s desire to take the war to China would have created geopolitical chaos. As a result, the United States contained the war to the Korean peninsula which, unfortunately, basically ended in a stalemate and the state of affairs we have today.
Instead, the McChrystal case is probably closer to that of Lyndon Johnson and Air Force General Curtis LeMay during the Vietnam war. Then, LeMay vigorously advocated for carpet bombing large swaths of North Vietnam to disrupt their ability to produce war material and supply lines, destroy vital infrastructure, and generally demoralize the North Vietnamese. Johnson’s concerns is that this would lead to a widening of the war by directly drawing in the Chinese or Soviets (who had advisers in North Vietnam). Also, bombing the North’s harbors would require bombing Chinese and Soviet vessels. Was LeMay correct? Most analyses after the war would indicate such. In the waning days of the war, Richard Nixon ordered massive bombing raids of North Vietnam that forced certain concessions of the Communists at the bargaining table in Paris. This allowed the United States to end participation in the war. Of course, it didn’t end quite nicely for the United States, but most historians believe it would have ended worse without the Paris Peace Accords which solicited concessions because of Nixon’s bombing campaign, or LeMay’s original strategy. You could also look more recently to the case of General Eric Shineski who told Congress that it would take 100,000 troops at least to pacify Iraq. Shineski, like LeMay before him, were removed from their commands for going against the civilian authority and strategy of the President. Was Shineski, like LeMay, correct? Well, at its peak, there were over 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq- 90,000 of them regular (not reserve) combat units. Additionally, the celebrated “surge” added another 21,000 combat troops. On the other end of the spectrum, there are examples of generals being too timid in the execution of a war. McClellan, for example, was relieved of his duties by Lincoln because he held back Union troops at critical junctures in the Civil War. And, the refusal of Nelson Miles to invade Cuba with land forces in the Spanish-American War led to his military exile by President McKinley. In the case of McClellan, a great logistician, his timidness probably extended the war. In the case of Miles, the eventual land invasion of Cuba was a victory, but it was not pretty.
Hindsight is always 20/20. And what is historical analysis but looking at something in hindsight? Will General McChrystal’s arguments be weighed favorably by future historians? Most likely, they will. The Obama strategy in Afghanistan is, quite frankly, naive. It is like Reagan’s decision to land Marines in Beirut with no bullets in their guns. It was like believing that the mere sight of American Marines in Lebanon would send the PLO fleeing into the hills. Instead, they got caught in the cross-fire and lost their lives to suicide bombers that attacked their barracks in Beirut. They “retreated,” but then returned, this time with their guns loaded. The former is Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. The United States is sending military personnel into an essentially lawless country to act essentially as an armed Peace Corps. Besides establishing military control and denying the Taliban footholds, they are also to teach crop rotation, irrigation, school building, etc. Oh—and did I mention they had to achieve all this by June of 2011 because we were drawing down then?
The bottom line is that this was not the first time that this general expressed displeasure with Presidential authority or strategy. Newspaper reports leaked his opposition which, when given the chance to at least show some respect for the Constitutional chain-of-command, he doubled-down on by giving a speech to NATO members. His subsequent answer for clarification as to whether he agreed with the Afghanistan strategy- “the short answer is no”- should have been the writing on the wall. Perhaps, the more noble thing would have been to decline the offer to lead our forces in Afghanistan, then stand back and say, “I told you so.” Because ultimately, history will most likely render an “I told you so” conclusion. However, along the way, although ostensibly voicing the opinions and frustrations of those he commands, he undercut morale and he undercut discipline. Ironically, these are two of the arguments regarding the DADT policy regarding gays. One cannot have it both ways. One cannot argue that gays openly serving in the military will undercut morale and discipline while a four-star general is running around undercutting the Constitutional commander-in-chief.
Three final thoughts. First, ever since the nightly news brought war into our living rooms in vivid color during Vietnam, the role of the media has changed. Reporting is instant, not newsreels or radio reports from the front. Given the number of media outlets, disagreements between the civilian control of the military and the generals themselves will be the norm. For better or worse, war reporting- from planning through execution- changed during the Vietnam War and is evolving still. The politics of waging war goes back to the American Revolution. The only difference is that it is more open now and will be even more so in the future.
Second, it is truly amazing to see the evolution of his replacement, General David Petraes, in the skewed eyes of the liberal. Wasn’t it not too long ago that liberal organizations like Moveon.org were taking out full page advertisements calling him “General Betray Us?” Wasn’t it not too long ago that several of our distinguished Senators refused to vote on a resolution rebuking these organizations for their vitriolic attacks? The only thing that has changed is the occupant of the Oval Office. This is hypocrisy at its zenith.
And finally and most importantly, the “decision” to replace McChrystal is hardly a show of leadership by Obama. This is not his Truman moment. This is not his Johnson or Lincoln or Bush moment when it comes to military leadership. This is not even his McKinley moment. Its commonsense. If Obama wanted to show leadership and illustrate that he was a Commander-in-Chief worthy of that title, he would not have “dressed down” the general in 2009, but eased him out then, if not fired him outright. The “resignation” and replacement of McChrystal shows Obama at his rudderless best. Fortunately, the biggest winner in all this is the Constitution of the United States. Too bad a constitutional “scholar” who happens to occupy the White House stumbled upon that conclusion.