The War Between Obama and McChrystal Is Over — Obama Lost

It was reported on June 22 that General Stanley McChrystal had tendered his resignation to President Barack Obama and that the White House was actively discussing a replacement who could be quickly confirmed by the Senate:

The source said that among the names being touted as possible successors are General James Mattis, the outgoing head of the US Joint Forces Command and due to retire after being passed over as US Marine Corps commander, and Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commander of Nato’s Training Mission in Afghanistan.

On June 23, en route to a meeting with Secretary Gates, General McChrystal denied that he had tendered his resignation but indicated that he was prepared to do so. More accurately, General McChrystal probably requested retirement instead of resigning his commission; he is certainly eligible for retirement and, like a resignation, acceptance of his retirement was optional with the president.

Following a thirty minute meeting with President Obama, General McChrystal departed the White House "before Obama convened a regularly scheduled war planning meeting there." That was a pretty good indication of what was to come. An announcement that General McChrystal had been relieved of his command by President Obama was made later on June 23. General McChrystal is to be replaced by General Petraeus.

After offering to step down, it would have been unseemly for Obama to have fired him. Had General McChrystal not offered to go, he would most likely have been fired -- more accurately, his retirement would have been demanded. Otherwise, he would have found it even more difficult than previously to perform his increasingly arduous duties in Afghanistan. Those duties have been all the more difficult due to dissension among others in the White House circle. Politico reports that there are divisions among Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Biden, Gen. David Petraeus, Richard Holbrooke, and others. According to Mike Brownfield:

Those divisions are of Obama’s own making, stemming from his lack of leadership and failure to make a firm commitment to victory in Afghanistan.

Be that as it may, there is one commander in chief of the United States military, and it is a civilian: the president of the United States. Adore him, tolerate him, or despise him, he is still the commander in chief and. He is entitled to the respect customarily shown to that office by military officers; to be disrespectful or insubordinate is highly inappropriate. Taking issue, publicly, with the commander in chief on war policy is grossly inappropriate for a high ranking serving officer and is no less troublesome than a company commander telling his troops that the battalion commander is an idiot. Both degrade the chain of command and neither leads to the enthusiastic obedience of lawful orders. A retired senior officer for whose views I have great respect has told me that:

Any senior officer I know anything about would never tolerate members of his staff making the kinds of remarks reported, and he certainly wouldn’t have said those kinds of things even among his close staff, much less in front of a reporter. If the report is accurate, the president shouldn’t relieve McChrystal; Gates should do it and do it quickly.

Although General McChrystal has apologized to various and sundry for his remarks, I have seen nothing to suggest that he has retracted them or those of his staff members. The only casualty besides General McChrystal thus far has been that Duncan Boothby, the special [civilian] assistant to McChrystal who organized the Rolling Stone journalist's access to the commander, has resigned as a result of the article.

Surely, General McChrystal knew better than most people what conduct is expected of very senior officers. Had he wanted to comply with these principles, he should have sought retirement from the Army before giving a reporter for Rolling Stone what appears to have been extended access over a period of two months to himself and to his staff. He is not a callow child and cannot be assumed to have been blissfully ignorant of the form his "profile" would likely take. Earlier, he had been chastised by President Obama for going public with his demand for more troops for Afghanistan. His failure to submit his retirement papers before speaking out demonstrated either an abysmal lack of judgment or a desire to provoke the reaction which followed. I can't find any sufficient basis for assuming the former and shall, therefore, assume the latter and that he got pretty much what he wanted. Now that he has it, what will he do with it?

Paul Mirengoff, writing in Power Line on June 22, observed:

[T]he airing of military grievances in Rolling Stone seems extraordinary enough to cry out for additional explanation. I assume that the conduct of Gen. McChrystal and his aides reflects deep frustration with the Obama administration over, among other things, (a) its inability for the better part of a year to formulate a plan for waging war in Afghanistan and, far more importantly, (b) the imposition of a July 2011 deadline or target date for beginning our withdrawal, along with (c) the decision to retain an ambassador to Afghanistan who doesn't see eye-to-eye with McChrystal on key issues.

Add it all up, and it probably looks to McChrystal as if he has been dealt a losing hand. That's hard to keep silent about, especially nowadays.

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The main consequence of this flap may be to provide various actors with an excuse for doing what they want to do anyway. President Obama should conclude that he needs to relax the July 2011 deadline that is weighing so heavily on McChrystal and others in the military. But he's far more likely to conclude that the part of him (the main part, I think) that wants nothing to do with the military or with wars had it right all along. And if McChrystal is booted, President Karzai, who has a good relationship with the General, may find an additional rationale for tilting away from the U.S. and trying to cut some kind of deal.

Things are really screwed up in Afghanistan; they were screwed up before General McChrystal got there and they will be screwed up long after the United States exits. According to retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, there are horrific problems in command and control as well as in other areas. Col. West's address was delivered on September 11, 2009, and there appears to be little indication that General McChrystal -- who had three months earlier assumed command in Afghanistan -- did much to fix them. Indeed, it has been argued persuasively that he imposed unduly restrictive rules of engagement, which got some of our troops killed. I do not know whether he was trying to adhere to policy from above with which he did not agree or did it on his own; I suspect the former. If that was the case, he should have resigned his commission or retired in protest even earlier.