Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The President’s McChrystal Opportunity

General McChrystal is an ass and his stupidity in uttering the things he uttered to a journalist – not a drinking-buddy general, but a freakin’ free-lance journalist writing for Rolling Freakin’ Stone – calls into question his fitness for command for his of lack of judgment as much as for his insubordination, the latter raising question enough. The President would be justified in relieving him of command and a few other benefits of military service.

But I’m not entirely sure he should, for his own good.

Now, Your Cool Hot Center is not fond of this President. But it doesn’t wish him any particular ill, and its preference would be that he a good President and a good man. He hasn’t shown a strong inclination to be the first thing and the republic and I are still uncertain about the second. But people can change. He is a smart chap and perhaps one morning he will wake up, invite Newt Gingrich in for a spot of tea or perhaps a brew, the two of them will hammer out a sensible and moderate Contract for 21st Century America, and his historical significance will be beyond reach. (Unless his idea of historical significance is to be The First Black President to Be Compared Unfavorably to Warren G. Harding and Jimmy Carter.)

I’m not holding my breath about the Newt thing, but I do have some advice for him which I swear, O Centerists, is absolutely sincere.

After his meeting with General McC and the top Pentagon brass, President Obama should issue a statement that would go something like this:

“I was very disturbed at published reports that General McChrystal had given an interview to a journalist in which he was severely critical of me and several high-ranking members of my administration. While America treasures its heritage as a country in which First Amendment rights of free speech are valued above all others, every free country also recognizes that among the first tenets of the maintenance of a strong, civilian-controlled military is the need for loyalty not only in deed, but in thought and word.

"General McChrystal showed little regard for that tenet in his remarks. He recognizes this. In our meeting, he apologized – in my judgment, sincerely – for his remarks, not only to me but to the other individuals named in his interview. More importantly, he reaffirmed his loyalty to both the concept and the fact of civilian leadership of the military of this great nation, as well as his support for this administration’s strategic goals in Afghanistan.

“It remained for me to determine what action to take in light of these events.

“In pondering this decision, I thought back on my own political career, and that of many of the men and women I am now proud to have serving this country, and this administration. Every one of those careers can illustrate the fact that sometimes people say things they shouldn’t, and sometimes those things are exceedingly ill-advised. Certainly my own public record contains some statements I’d like to have back.

“In this case, I believe that a few unfortunate comments ought not destroy the career of one of our most distinguished and highly-regarded military leaders. And it also ought not deprive the country of the services of a man who I have believed, and still believe, is the right man for the job I have asked him to do in Afghanistan.

“Accordingly, I have accepted General McChrystal’s apology as have the other individuals involved.  I have rejected his offer to resign his post.  I have advised General McChrystal that his command will be unaffected by this episode. I have further requested that the Secretary of the Army and the Joint Chiefs of Staff not take any action to discipline General McChrystal beyond noting this episode in his record. I have asked General McChrystal to return to Afghanistan with my best wishes and continued support for the fine job he and his troops are doing under extremely difficult circumstances.  

"In addition, we took the opportunity of our meeting to discuss our Afghanistan campaign in some detail, and I have asked General McChrystal to follow up with a full report of the current status there, and additional detailed recommendations for me to consider.

“In declining to discipline General McChrystal in this instance, I do not wish to call into question the military’s rules against insubordination, nor the powerful policy that requires them for the maintenance of an effective national defense. I have only determined that on this particular occasion, the offense of insubordination – and neither I nor General McChrystal have any question that this is what took place here – does not call for his relief from command. That this episode will remain in his record, and will have become of public record, is judgment enough at this time.

“You can call it the ‘sticks and stones’ theory of government. As long as personal mistakes are recognized for what they are – and that their seriousness is likewise recognized, and that they are not repeated – we are not going to let the occasional intemperate remark distract us from the need to work together to achieve this nation’s goals.

“Finally, I would like to add a personal note. I am speaking now only for myself, and not for any other of the individuals involved. I read General McChrystal’s remarks. Among those remarks was an expression of disappointment that in my first meeting with him, he found me unprepared. Well, in considering this matter I have had occasion to recall that meeting. And I believe that candor requires me to admit that I probably was not as prepared as I should have been.

“I believe that every difficulty should serve as an opportunity to learn something. I am confident that General McChrystal has done so. I have resolved to do so as well.”

How’s that sound? I think if the President issued a statement along these lines, Keith Olberman would recant every negative syllable about him he has uttered in the last two weeks, and Chris Matthews would tingle all over, like someone standing in the transporter of the Starship Enterprise – the Kirk Enterprise, not the Picard Enterprise.  And the right would be similarly impressed.

And people would think President Obama was a pretty good guy and possibly even a wise leader.


N.B.:  I should add that this advice is entirely independent of whether we need a change at the top in Afghanistan for other reasons, or whether the Administration's strategy there is sound, or effective.  In fact, I assume that the problems here go beyond personal animosity.  And now, having thus thoroughly qualified my advice, I stand by it absolutely.


  1. Good analysis. But wrong bottom line. The only right answer is put a Marine general in charge, have Army units in Afghanistan report to USMC, and bring Matthew Hoh, Capt, USMC ret., back into the action. Then maybe we can get our Afghan strategy un-freaked.

  2. Steverino: As always, some stuff to agree with and some not. Agree: mcChrystal acted insubordinately, and (2) Obama should kepp him on. (Great speech, by the way, but Obama will never give it.). Disagree: Obama is not that bright and he does not command respect, even among civilians and Democrats. Look at what both Harry Reid and Joe Biden said about him ("clean," "doesn't speak with Negro dialect except when he wants to") and where are they today? Consider the possibility that McChrystal is not an "ass" but a patriot who is willing to sacrifice himself and his career for his country, to get the word out from a credible source through a left-leaning mouthpiece rather than, say, National Review.
    But Keep on blogging, my man, and I'll keep reading. Your big fan in the Big Apple.

  3. Steve G: Be honest with you, not sure that Afghanistan isn't an intractable situation. Doesn't have Iraq's infrastructure (!) and stability (!) that will enable any modern power to impose any kind of a solution. Soviet Union found that out. Maybe we should. Not that adding a Marine or two to the mix won't improve about any situation. Semper.

  4. Anonymous Apple: McChrystal is undoubtedly a patriot, but undoubtedly also an ass. As little as one may respect Obama, he is still President Obama, and it will not do to have even highly competent military authorities voicing public disrespect. As long as the President isn't going to take my advice on what to say, then McChrystal probably has to go. Whoops, looks like he's already gone.

    Also, consider that having disloyal commanders -- disloyal government lifers of any kind -- engenders sympathy for Obama in his attempt to get anything done. It is true that it seems like most of the country, including leaders in his own party, grumble about him behind his back.

    But the military is a different bird. It has guns. It must serve the civilian leadership, and it must scrupulously observe the forms of doing so.

    As always, AA, thanks for checking in and for your kind words.

  5. Ah, so the military "must serve the civilian leadership, and it must scrupulously observe the forms for doing so" -- and why is that? Because "it has guns"? Methinks not. Drug dealers have guns. The reason is that the Constitution says so - the same Constitution, by the way, that the individual mandate of Obamacare violates and that says that the President has no authority to hire or fire the CEO of General Motors, or to take over GM, or to tand the bankruptcy laws on their head while doing so, or to tell BP how much it must pay to whom, or to shut down drilling inthe Gulf of Mexico, or ... well, you get the idea.

    Like the President, every general takes an oath to support and defend the Constitution, against enemies both foreign and domestic. McChrystal had a patriotic duty to speak out when he thinks the President is wrong, even though it meant sacrificing his career and I, for one, salute him for it.

    I also disagree that this engenders sympathy for Obama; it just shows once again how little respect the military has for Presidents who like to fly around in Air Force One in their little "Commander in Chief" jackets while having no experience, little understanding, and only minimal respect for the military, like Clinton before Obama.

    I mean, how condescending and patronizing was it when Obama first stepped on board Air Force One and said to the pilot "That's exactly what I want the pilot of Air Force One to look like"? What would have been the reaction if John Roberts had said at BOB's swearing-in, "That's just what I want a President to look like"?

    Obama looks smaller every day in office. He really should hire you as a speech writer if he doesn't want to wind up being Jimmy Carter II.

    Your Big Fan in the Big Apple

  6. OK, now I've read the RS article and McChrystal comes across as an ass (if that's the same as a jerk) but NOT as insubordinate; in fact, most of what's been attributed to him in the rest of the press doesn't come from him at all. SO where's the insubordination? Waht;s your take? Big Apple

  7. Apple, thanks as always. Love getting the NY point of view on things.

    But oh, Apple: Military gots lots more guns than drug dealers.

    Of course the President is constitutionally the commander in chief, but the constitution does not prohibit insubordination. (Nor, in its present state of interpretation by the Supreme Court, regrettably the only interpretation that currently matters and the only one that has since, I believe, 1803 (Marbury v. Madison), is it likely to prohibit any of the other things on your list, as little as we may like it.)

    I respectfully disagree that any commander has a "patriotic duty" to air his distaste or disagreement for his commander to anyone other than his superiors, with the possible exception of disclosure of treason by the commander. If you will go back and read your "patriotic duty" sentence, it appears that you are saying that what McChrystal said was so urgent measured by quantum-of-patriotism that it was worth killing his career and command over. It wasn't. It was merely stupid and insubordinate. Would General Notman Schartzkopf have had the "patriotic duty" to say that George W. Bush was a dithering ninmy and Karl Rove an ignorant Svengali if he believed that to be the case?

    Look, I don't care for this President, but all newly-elected presidents are tyros. Obama has indeed done a conspicuously poor job of training himself in the kind of leadership the country expects and that the military requires. But those forms -- that is, the forms of civilian control of the military -- are important. This guy was elected decisviely (and it wouldn't have made any difference if he hadn't been, see, e.g., GWBush), and he's the Commander in Chief, and if his sub-commanders don't like it, the solution is not to gossip to writers about the guy and his lame colleagues, but either to bring misgivings to the commander's attention, or to resign your commission if you cannot serve while showing the appropriate public respect. Consider your own workplace experience: Would a subordinate's critial comments to a media representative not under any obligation of confidentiality be tolerated for one day? Nope -- the blabber would be gonzo before cocktail hour. McChrystal's failure to recognize that, his failure to perceive that there's a world out there beyond those under his command, is an excellent reason why we HAVE civilian control over the military.

    We must not let our powerful suspicion that we have a really, really bad president obscure our need to observe, yes, the "forms" of civilian control of the military in this country. And that is true whether the military up and down the ranks likes or dislikes the commander, or whether anyone else does. General McChrystal's remarks added zero to the sum total of what we know about this president -- but it added terabytes to what we know about McChrystal. Unless Obama were going to use the occasion to give the sublime speech I so carefully composed for him, the General had to go and go quickly.

    My post was intended not to support McChrystal, but to illustrate a way of governing that could redound to our elected president's benefit, and, if believed those fine words I wrote for him, to the country's.

    Apple, you got me going. Keep writing in and keep being the Apple Fan of The Cool Hot Center.

  8. The question I last posed, Steverino, isn't whether the President should tolareate insubordination but - whre's the insubordination? I read the Rolling Stone peice, word for word, some of it twice, and I don't see it. Do you? The article trashes the general, not Obama.
    As for Norman Schwartzkopf, he did in fact implicitly critize his Prez - Geo H W - when he told a reporter that "we could have made it [Gulf War I] a war of annihilation but the Presdient didn't want one," and it reportedly cost him a fifth star and got him an early retirement. So I stand by my statement about generals' patriotic duty to speak out - they have a higher calling to their country than simply kowtowing to whoever won the latest popularity contest at the national polls. (And as you point out, the size of the popular vote is irrelevant.)
    As for "a subordinate's critial comments to a media representative not under any obligation of confidentiality," isn;t that what the New York Times and the Washington Post spend most of their news pages publishing? It happens all the time in Washington. Maybe you should move there and impose a gag order, along with becomong BOB's new speechwriter!

    Big Fan, Big Apple