Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Civilian Control over the Military

I was surprised at how quickly our normally-cautious president decided to fire General McChrystal after the publication in Rolling Stone of an article describing his and his staff's disrespectful remarks about the administration's Afghanistan team.  After all, it's only Rolling Stone magazine.  And the remarks could have been written off as the usual  private (oops-except for that pesky reporter) military grumbling within the confines of their own tents about clueless politicians who are always making life difficult for capable soldiers.  General McClellan said far worse things about Abraham Lincoln, and although he was eventually sacked also, he was not sacked for his disrespectful remarks, but for his dithering and insubordinate military strategy.  General LeMay was also highly outspoken and disrepectful of President Kennedy, but Kennedy put up with it.  By refusing to tolerate this kind of disrespect, is President Obama showing himself to be too thin-skinned?  Is he unduly worried about the acceptance of his leadership within the military?  Does it make sense to discharge a general who is generally acting in conformity with existing strategy (indeed the strategy in Afghanistan was in large part a strategy designed by McChrystal), and replace him with another general (even if it is David Petraeus, who has high respect in the military and among the public) who is probably going to continue down the same path?  I thought these kinds of concerns would have led the president to keep McChrystal on at least a while longer, and since I pride myself on staying in sync with the administration's decisions, I was a bit miffed that my prediction was today proven incorrect.   (Doris Kearns Goodwin also had a piece in the Times based on her Lincoln research opining that Obama would act only for reasons of strategy, rather than pique at being criticized.)

I am guessing that the president must have felt he had no choice but to take this action.  Perhaps this was as good a time as any to demonstrate that the principle of civilian control over the military must never be questioned.   I'm also guessing that President Obama must have felt uncomfortable with McChrystal for a long time, and that this incident was just the straw that broke the camel's back.  There was that incident last year when the President was undertaking a lengthy review of Afghanistan policy, during which General McChrystal came out with a fairly outspoken report raising the possibility of failure if the General did not get his troop request.  I'm sure that was annoying. 

So I'm going to give the president the benefit of the doubt that speedily firing McChrystal was the right decision to make.  Someday we will probably learn of more of the factors that probably required this decision.  It will also be interesting to see whether this shake-up prompts another re-examination of policy in Afghanistan, and if any re-arrangement of the chairs in the civilian command also takes place.

(Photograph by Mikhail Galustov for Rolling Stone)


  1. The General left him no choice

  2. Great original post. There have been many examples of a President not being 'forced' into a decision. WWll has a few examples in addition to your earlier historical references. The Prez could have sucked it up up to show strength. Instead he 'acted' to show strength. What does that get him? Well, David Petraeus now owns the theater. He will not be fired and the civilian government gave the military control. That is a fact. We will see the withdrawl date is nonsense and execution of the war will change. Good or bad, Obama is no longer in charge.

  3. Wouldn't it be ironic if acting to show the president is in charge led to the president not being in charge. You could be right about that, because Petraeus has a lot of clout. But ultimately, Petraeus still has to answer to Obama, and Obama would replace him too, if he had too. General MacArthur was probably more popular than Truman, but Truman fired him.

    As for the withdrawal date, I think it was always designed with a lot of flexibility. The policy is that withdrawal starts next year, but there is nothing in the policy about how long withdrawal could take.

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