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

Cohen, however, seems upset that General McChrystal has told “this young and untested president…what to do.” He writes: “this MacArthuresque star called for a Trumanesque response, but Obama offered nothing of the kind.” Is Cohen suggesting that President Obama fire McChrystal, which would be the only Trumanesque response?  Obviously, the left-wing of the Democratic Party, which only used the argument that Iraq is the wrong war and Afghanistan is the right war as a tool with which to attack George W. Bush, would be more than pleased. But Cohen’s real complaint is different. It is that Barack Obama does not inspire “a lot of awe,” which he knows is what we need. A war of necessity, he writes, demands just that. So he wants the president to show some spine, and based on his “zigzagging so far,” he has doubts about whether he will come through as he hopes will be the case.

As for Truman and MacArthur, the various columnists seem to forget how different that dispute was. General Douglas MacArthur favored victory at all costs, which he defined as expansion of the war by crossing the Yalu River, bombing in Chinese territory, and ignoring the possibility that such steps would lead the Soviet Union to honor its defense pact with China and then formally enter the war as well—risking the possibility of a third world war fought with atomic weapons.

The Administration was fighting to reverse the Soviet backed North Korean invasion of South Korea, and to push the Communist forces back across the 38th parallel that separated the South from the North. The set goal was to preserve the integrity of the pro-Western South Korean government, and defeat the attempt of the North Koreans to create a unified Communist Korea. Instead, in December of 1950, MacArthur, as Alonzo Hamby writes in his biography of Truman, “the general demanded full freedom of action and unlimited resources for all-out retaliation against the Chinese.” That included a coastal blockade, bombing of industrial areas in China, and support of military action by Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in Formosa.  The fight was over whether the U.S. should accept the boundaries between North and South set in June of 1950, or make a drive towards the Yalu and fight to destroy the  Communist regime in the North.

On March 24th, countermanding Truman’s decision to move to a negotiated peace and accept the boundaries- having pushed the Chinese out of Seoul in South Korea- MacArthur issued his own declaration publicly calling for victory, and proclaiming that his forces could easily defeat the Chinese troops in battle. Truman had no choice, once the general issued his own directives for the war and challenged that of the Administration, but to remove him from office.  That tough decision was not popular in the country, and it showed Truman’s strength of character that he was willing to do what was necessary, even though the nation exploded in rage against him.

The Republican far Right of the day called for the president’s impeachment, branded him as the Communist’s great friend, said he was unfit to be the nation’s leader, and even worse. MacArthur returned to America a conquering hero. He got a ticker tape parade in New York City where city residents lined the streets in the thousands, and later gave a speech to Congress, that exploded in applause for the disgraced former military leader.

So in reality, there was a major difference between Truman’s fight with MacArthur and Obama’s differences with McChrystal. Today’s general only stood by the strategy that Obama had previously announced on March 27th, and supported his analysis of what was needed to fulfill the goals the Obama Administration set forth. MacArthur violated the Constitutional requirement for civilian control of the military when he called for a different strategy than the president and sought public support to carry it out in opposition to the White House.

The spine Obama needs is not that of moving to dismiss McChrystal, but that of having the courage to implement the agreed upon strategy, and not to backtrack and act to win the favor of his party’s left-wing that now wants retreat.  Let us hope, as Richard Cohen argues, that he is up to that task.


On the TNR website, the centrist Democrat William Galston has just posted a similar piece, making the same argument about the differences between MacArthur and McChrystal. He too says that Ackerman and Robinson are wrong. Galston argues that McChrystal's intervention is a good thing, and makes it harder for Obama to fudge his eventual decision. Kudos to Galston for reminding liberals of the double standard they often have when it comes to letting Obama off the hook.