I don’t blame President Obama for relieving Stanley McChrystal of command. I would have done the same thing had I been in his shoes. You cannot, if you are the commander-in-chief, have a general going about making contemptuous remarks about your senior staff.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether General McChrystal was correct in his assessment. The president was right that the general’s remarks, quoted in Rolling Stone magazine, threaten to “undermine the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
A few years ago, I had the privilege of being flown out to the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier, when it was conducting sea trials off Norfolk, Virginia. I spent the day being shown around that extraordinary machine, had dinner with some pilots and other officers, and spent much of the night watching planes land and take off, land and take off. The next day I was catapulted off the ship and flown back to the mainland. It was an amazing experience. The skill and technical prowess everywhere in evidence was humbling. So was the realization that what was happening all around me was deadly serious. All that technology, all that discipline, all that firepower: it was deployed not for show but on behalf of preserving freedom and democracy.
I mention that episode to recall a quiet but unyielding rebuke I received while being escorted around the Ike. Everyone I spoke to, from the youngest seaman to the captain himself, was polite, well-informed, and articulate. The officer assigned to show me around was a model cicerone: full of attentive courtesy and eager to make my visit enjoyable. There was, however, a moment of froideur. Around the time of my visit, the Navy had just announced the advent of its latest Seawolf nuclear submarine, the USS Jimmy Carter. I found the conjunction of the words “nuclear submarine” and the name “Jimmy Carter” hilariously absurd and mentioned this in passing to my host. He did not laugh. On the contrary, he assumed a grave and distant mien, making it perfectly clear that this was a subject into which he was not prepared to trespass. He was perfectly happy to discourse about the aircraft carrier’s weapons and capabilities, but disparaging remarks about a former commander-in-chief were out of bounds.
Quite right, too. It’s OK for me, a civilian in a democracy, to criticize Jimmy Carter or any other political figure. It was wrong of me to expect a serviceman in uniform to join in. Just so, Stanley McChrystal, citizen, may have had good reason to hold various Obama administration officials in contempt. But Stanley McChrystal, general in the U.S. Army, should not have publicly expressed any such sentiments.
Some commentators have described as “brilliant” President Obama’s choice of David Petraeus to replace McChrystal. I find it not so much brilliant but inescapable. Who else was he going to pick? General Petraeus was not only the obvious choice; he was almost the inevitable choice. It wasn’t so long ago, of course, that the New York Times was running ads shouting “General Betray Us.” But that now seems like ancient history. For many months, General Petraeus has been regarded as a national hero, the man who (finally!) brought some order to Iraq.
What should worry President Obama about the McChrystal affair is not so much the odor of insubordination that attended his remarks as the political reality that occasioned them in the first place. And the president isn’t the only one who should be worried. We should, too. The two words that are everywhere repeated about Obama these days are “arrogance” and “incompetence.” General McChrystal ought not to have said what he did in the hearing of that reporter from Rolling Stone. But the substance of what he said must give us pause. It is yet another reminder that this administration is hopelessly out of its depth.