Obama Missteps on McChrystal

Why firing the general is not likely to help.

In making and tolerating disparaging comments about his civilian superiors in front of a reporter, Gen. Stanley McChrystal failed a test of leadership, judgment, and respect for his role in a democratic government. But most obviously, he failed an IQ test.

Popping off about people in the Obama administration in the presence of a journalist can be characterized by many adjectives. "Smart" is not one of them.

By any reasonable standard, President Obama had ample cause to sack him. But if he thought McChrystal was the right person to lead the U.S. effort in Afghanistan before the latest issue of Rolling Stone came out, he should have stuck with that judgment.

The strategy Obama has embraced, after all, is the one devised by McChrystal. As the president noted in firing him, they were in complete accord on how to prosecute the war.

Gen. David Petraeus, who conceived and oversaw the surge in Iraq, is obviously competent to replace him. But putting him in command in Afghanistan deprives the president of his services as head of Central Command, a more important job.

So he and members of his staff think the people they have to work with and answer to are morons? Guess what: Millions of Americans feel the same way about their bosses and co-workers. (Some soldiers feel the same way about McChrystal.) As a rule, that doesn't keep them from doing their jobs.

I suspect Rahm Emanuel has said worse about Obama when he gets home from a hard day at work. But unless McChrystal or Emanuel is impossibly at odds with the president on his basic policies, such expressions of frustration don't keep them from serving him well.

The bigger problem is that the general let his discontent become public. It is a grave offense in a constitutional republic for generals to undermine their commander-in-chief. Even many conservative critics of Obama agree that McChrystal committed a "firing offense."

But just because he deserved dismissal doesn't mean the president should have given it to him. The embarrassment McChrystal brought on himself was enough to remind everyone that generals serve presidents, not the other way around.

It turns out Obama is not as much like Lincoln as he aspires to be. The 16th president, who had his own war to run, had many opportunities to take umbrage at disrespectful conduct by his highest Army officers. And he repeatedly put the nation's needs first.

Once, when Lincoln paid an evening visit to his top commander, George McClellan, the famously arrogant general came home and went to bed without so much as acknowledging the president. Lincoln shrugged it off, saying he would hold McClellan's horse if it would produce a victory.

Eventually, he replaced the battle-shy McClellan with Joseph Hooker, who had said the country needed a dictator. Lincoln wrote Hooker, "Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship." He was not about to let pride or other non-essential concerns get in the way of defeating the enemy.

Obama should have followed that example. He put McChrystal in command because he saw him as the best person to implement the strategy he sees as our best hope in Afghanistan. McChrystal's disdain for Joe Biden doesn't make him any less suitable for the role.

It is tempting for a boss to fire an underling who has been caught in an act of insubordination. But what underling is less likely to commit insubordination than one who has undergone public humiliation for it?

None of this is to excuse the general's abysmal decision to vent so freely. What was said of Napoleon's execution of a prominent duke—"It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder"—applies here.

A general may be forgiven for an insult to civilian rule. But McChrystal did far worse: He let down the men and women whose lives are on the line in Afghanistan. He allowed himself to create a major distraction from the task at hand, doing a favor to the Taliban and al-Qaida. He impeded the prosecution of a war we are not winning.

But firing him is not likely to help. Here's what Obama should have told McChrystal: "General, you screwed up big-time, and your conduct is inexcusable. Here is your punishment: You have the most impossible job in the world, and you will keep doing it."

This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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