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McChrystal vs. Obama: Is This Another MacArthur vs. Truman?

Writing in The Washington Post, Yale Law School Professor Bruce Ackerman attempts to chastise General Stanley McChrystal for standing behind his well known recommendations on the military strategy for the United States to follow in Afghanistan. What upsets the professor is McChrystal’s audacity to challenge the wisdom of the expert from Delaware, Vice-President Joe Biden- a man who has been consistently wrong on every foreign policy recommendation he has made for the past twenty years.

The man who voted against the First Gulf War under Bush 41 now favors less troops and the use of strategic bombing and drones---a tactic that would assure no return, harm innocent civilians, and guarantee America’s losing in Afghanistan. But the professor tells us “McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements,” since the NSC, not the General, determines our strategy. Keep in mind, as Max Boot has pointed out, that McChrystal was not acting contrary to his orders, or even disagreeing with Obama. Indeed, Obama’s March 27th edict was made clear when he announced a “comprehensive strategy” that would reverse the Taliban’s gains. As the president then argued, we cannot allow Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban, or “that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

General McChrystal was simply doing what he was told: informing President Obama what needs to be done to accomplish the ends he said were necessary to achieve. Why would the President not listen to the recommendation of the very man he put in charge who knows the territory and what needs to be done better than anyone else? Does Ackerman really believe that Joe Biden has one ounce of credibility for his recommendations? This is especially the case, as Boot notes, since McChrystal was only “offering his judgment about what it will take to implement the existing policy.”

Nevertheless, Ackerman and others are making a very flawed analogy---that pertaining to the Truman-MacArthur fight during the Korean War. “We have no need,” Ackerman writes, “for a repeat of the showdown between President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman faced down his general the last time around, but it was a bruising experience.” Once again, Ackerman suggests that if the General does not “show more-self restraint,” there could be another showdown over the issue of civilian control of the military.

Columnist Eugene Robinson agrees. He too thinks the General should “shut up and salute,” and not campaign publicly on behalf of what he thinks should be done. Again, Robinson makes the same mistake as Ackerman: he does not seem to realize that McChrystal was defending the strategy Obama originally favored, not one contrary to that of the Administration. He was not, as Robinson charges, engaging in politics.

And in the same paper, columnist Richard Cohen too raises the Truman-MacArthur analogy, while failing to comprehend what that dispute was all about. Cohen, unlike his fellow columnists, thinks the war in Afghanistan “is eminently more winnable than was Vietnam,” and he knows to win, that more troops and funding are needed. That takes presidential leadership, and he is afraid that is something Obama lacks. “Does he,” Cohen asks, “have the stomach and commitment for what is likely to continue to be an unpopular war?” Will he send some troops- but not enough to do the job?