On Wednesday, Major General Stanley McChrystal will have the kind of private face-to-face time with US President Barack Obama most people can only dream of getting, except the topic is one virtually no one would like to have. Will McChrystal resign, be fired or sent back to work smarting from a presidential tongue lashing of epic proportions.
McChrystal is – at least at the time of this writing – the US and Nato commander in Afghanistan and it is his plan for the troop surge and a new strategy for taking the fight to the insurgents that won the day after months of debate in the Obama administration.
The proximate cause of McChrystal’s predicament is an interview (actually weeks of interviews) with journalist Michael Hastings in which McChrystal and his staff let loose – colourfully. Hastings writes for Rolling Stone and obviously had full access to McChrystal and his staff as they said some of the most outrageous things to come from a general’s lips (or those of his subalterns) since, well, Douglas MacArthur let loose about president Harry Truman at the height of the Korean War, almost 60 years ago.
Hastings’ story hasn’t even hit the newsstands yet in print – although it is freely available on the magazine’s website. But the choice of a no-holds-barred interview by McChrystal, a general best identified with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners, game-changing strategy, in RS beggars the imagination. The magazine is, after all, almost synonymous with an irreverent style that deflates the powerful and pompous, applies its vivid acid-tongued style to its subjects and was flag bearer and trumpeter for America’s counter culture – at least at its inception a generation or so ago. It is absolutely the very last place one would expect a serving US general to go public denouncing the US’s current political leadership – the president, vice president, the special envoy to Afghanistan-Pakistan and the sitting US ambassador in Kabul as a bunch of nebbishes and no-hopers.
In fact, McChrystal’s current imbroglio isn’t even his first run-in with the Obama administration. Even before Obama had actually decided on accepting McChrystal’s strategic vision for the fighting in Afghanistan, the general chose to speak his piece at a London briefing, pre-emptively making the case for his new policy despite the Obama administration not yet having chosen his strategy. McChrystal’s point was that the president had to pick his surge plan or face imminent failure in “the graveyard of empires”. That earned McChrystal his first face-to-face with Obama on Air Force One and presumably extracted a promise from the good general that he wouldn’t do that again.
Except, whoops, he did it again.
The pundits are still divided on whether or not McChrystal’s words represent the kind of insubordination that must get him cashiered, or, in short, whether he has chosen MacArthur’s approach to civil military relations in America – even though the country’s constitution, law and 200 years of tradition all line up on the side of civilian control of military policy and order.
Instead, some are arguing, this is really a political problem for Obama. If he fires the general, he loses the argument about being tough on waging and finishing the war in Afghanistan, and he and his party will catch it in the neck in the upcoming midterm election.
Others, argue that if Obama doesn’t fire McChrystal for bringing the presidency into disrepute (a violation of the US Uniform Code of Military Justice’s Article 88) he reduces his presidency to impotency, demonstrating to all and sundry fatal weakness and encouraging everyone else in the government, the military and around the world to diss the president instead. Tough choice.
The best way out may well be for McChrystal to resign for the good of the military, the country and his strategy. As at least one commentator has already noted, even without McChrystal in command, it will still be his strategy in the field, and Obama has already nailed his flag to that mast.
By J Brooks Spector
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