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Tilting at Windmills

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June 22, 2010

WHAT TO DO ABOUT MCCHRYSTAL.... The question of the day, at least at first, was, "What on earth was Gen. Stanley McChrystal thinking when he and his team took derisive potshots at so many top U.S. leaders?" It wasn't long, though, before that question was replaced with, "What on earth is President Obama going to do about it?"

It's tempting to think this is a Truman/MacArthur* kind of moment, and the president doesn't have a choice but to replace the top U.S. general in Afghanistan. McChrystal's ties to top officials were strained before, and now they may be irreparably damaged.

Spencer Ackerman emphasizes, however, that there are risks associated with Obama firing the general.

There's only a year to go before the July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan security responsibility and the Kandahar tide is starting to rise. It'll be hard to fire McChrystal without ripping the entire Afghanistan strategy up, and I've gotten no indication from the White House that it's interested in doing that. On the other hand, if senior administration officials are and I just haven't picked up on it, McChrystal just gave them their biggest opportunity.

It's possible, as L.B. noted this morning, that McChrystal sees his strategy failing, and is trying to be relieved for insubordination, but reports suggest the general really is scrambling and wants to keep his job. The burden, of course, will fall on him to prove to the White House that he is the leader to be trusted to execute Obama's strategy, and given the Rolling Stone piece, that hurdle will be tough to clear.

But when push comes to shove, it's yet another tough call for the president -- he probably should fire McChrystal, but he probably doesn't want to.

What Obama prefers to do is stick to his current plan, and begin a phased transition in Afghanistan in just 12 months. If McChrystal is sacked, it means a shift in strategy, likely delays in the broader timetable, and more perilous conditions on the ground. If McChrystal is allowed to stay, the larger plan remains in place, but with a weakened general and frayed lines of trust between the White House and the commander of U.S. and NATO forces.

If Obama keeps McChrystal at his post, the president runs the risk of losing face, and weakening his position as Commander in Chief. If Obama fires McChrystal, the president's own war policy is at risk, and a delicate moment in Afghanistan could deteriorate.

For what it's worth, if either side is looking for possible face-saving caveats, the most insulting quotes in the Rolling Stone article came not from McChrystal, but from his aides. For that matter, the potshots aren't substantive: "All the criticisms -- of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden -- are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal's crew calls itself) finds them."

Could this angle be used to smooth things over tomorrow at the White House? I don't know; I'm just throwing it out there. This mess may be too severe to be cleaned up.

* fixed

Steve Benen 10:45 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (44)

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Comments

There's quite a few generals available who can take over in Afghanistan. The entire military command structure is designed to be coherent as leaders are replaced, for obvious reasons. Replace him now.

Fire him now, demote all of aides who made those comments by two grades. It's not impossible, or even hard. The right wing will complain, but they will always complain no matter what Obama does.

Posted by: Rathskeller on June 22, 2010 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

It undermines the US policy in Afghanistan.
Obama is CIC.
What the general did is so serious and full of hubris, that he can't be trusted.
The ghost of Harry Truman will be at the meeting.

Posted by: Maude on June 22, 2010 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

I am all for deliberative decisionmaking, but he has no choice in this matter. If he lets McCrystal stay, his leadership will be rightly questioned. Afgan. is a lost cause, it always was, Obama should use this oportunity to fold his tent like the arabs and quietly steal away.

Posted by: Scott F. on June 22, 2010 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

I think you meant "Truman/MacArthur" rather than "Truman/McCarthy".

Posted by: Mike on June 22, 2010 at 10:51 AM | PERMALINK

McChrystal is not irreplaceable. He's not essential to the strategy. Obama's choice is not between maintaining his authority and maintaining the strategy.

The bit about "coming from aides" is irrelevant. How long did these interviews go on? How long did it take to gather all those quotes? It's simply not possible that nobody heard anything anyone was saying to him and/or didn't get word back to McChrystal. He knew, or he certainly should have known.

His loyalty is suspect and his judgment is questionable. He has to go.

Posted by: bleh on June 22, 2010 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

It doesn't matter whether McChrystal or his aides made the remarks. McChrystal's responsible for his subordinates' behavior. He has to go. The aides have to go. I'd like to see bad conduct discharges for that whole sorry bunch.

Posted by: azportsider on June 22, 2010 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

Shinseki was skwered. Not for self promoting in the press but for direct answers to direct under oath questions before Congressional hearings. Moreover Shinseki turned out to be right.

How is the right hoeling on this? Seems more than a double standard.

Posted by: qed on June 22, 2010 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

McChrystal cannot keep his job. As David Mizner posts at Open Left:

"'Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.'

Article 8 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
http://usmilitary.about.com/od/punitivearticles/a/mcm88.htm "

http://www.openleft.com/showComment.do?commentId=233828

Posted by: anon on June 22, 2010 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

If this is the best the US military can come up with for a theater command general, small wonder that we are losing in Afghanistan.
Maybe we could import some generals from Russia ? They probably have battlefield experience in Afghanistan and I'm sure they understand the concept of the chain of command.

Posted by: rbe1 on June 22, 2010 at 11:03 AM | PERMALINK

In short, fire his ass.

Posted by: rbe1 on June 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

He should be replaced, retire or be fired, those should be his only choices. The others should have to find a new career also.

Posted by: Kenneth on June 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

I love comments like 'If this is the best the US military can come up with for a theater command general, small wonder that we are losing in Afghanistan.' McChrystal is not guilty of being a bad soldier. He is guilty of being a bad commander. He knew what his job was, he knew that HE ALONE fostered the environment that allowed 'Team America' to run their mouths and I'm sure he's offering to resign right now. He didn't come out of some turnip patch. He went up thru the ranks, this is not the first time he's been dressed down but it may be the first time he has really seen what his big mouth led to with his troops. Too bad.

Posted by: SYSPROG on June 22, 2010 at 11:13 AM | PERMALINK

The "Truman/MacArthur" incident did not go well for the President. Mac came home to a tickertape parade.

Posted by: Quaker in a Basement on June 22, 2010 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

"If McChrystal is sacked, it means a shift in strategy"

Utter nonsense.

If an NBA quarterback is replaced midway thru the game, the strategy remains: win the damn game. And the Game Plan remains in place- it was prepared with a specific opponent in mind, as well as the QB's skills, but you don't 'shift the strategy' because the QB is either injured or incompetent. You have a back-up QB, and you know his strengths and weaknesses, and you also have a back-up plan for him.

-One hopes the White House is as skilled at their job as an NFL coach is at his.

And, yes, McChrystal needs to be fired, because you CANNOT allow subordinates to question their Commander in Chief. EVER!

Posted by: DAY on June 22, 2010 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

Staying the course has the advantage of running out the clock of a no-win situation and leaving it for the next administration. But since he's in his first term, Obama needs to show progress, and that's not going to happen. As Colbert would say, moving generals is just rearranging chairs on the Hindenburg.

Afghanistan/Pakistan will be Obama's undoing, unfortunately, since the country refuses to bite the bullet on withdrawal or total commitment.

Posted by: Uli Kunkel on June 22, 2010 at 11:19 AM | PERMALINK

The ghost of Harry Truman will be at the meeting
Eleanor Roosevelt too
Amongst the worry over watching the silverware
Other details to be nailed down round about there
A big enough venue
To offer his voice while
Presenting his choice
From spoiling the aim
Of the boots meant to tame
The force aimed at hitting his backside

Posted by: FRP on June 22, 2010 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

Could this be leveraged into something like:"yes
I will keep you,BUT there is a clear line in the
sand to wit--removal of troops WILL BEGIN as
planned in 2011." With no equivications,no but ifs,no "we are almost there" parsing of the time
line.

Posted by: Jim Merriman on June 22, 2010 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

This isn't a Truman/MacArthur situation because Stanley McChrystal is not General Douglas MacArthur! MacArthur commanded the US Army against Japan, accepted the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan, and was later the de facto ruler of Japan immediately after the war. Has McChrystal done anything even vaguely comparable to that?

If Truman could fire one of the greatest Generals in US Army history for insubordination, how much more so that Obama can fire a much lesser figure for insubordination.

-Z

Posted by: Zorro on June 22, 2010 at 11:33 AM | PERMALINK
If an NBA quarterback is replaced midway thru the game, the strategy remains: win the damn game. And the Game Plan remains in place- it was prepared with a specific opponent in mind, as well as the QB's skills, but you don't 'shift the strategy' because the QB is either injured or incompetent. You have a back-up QB, and you know his strengths and weaknesses, and you also have a back-up plan for him. -snip- And, yes, McChrystal needs to be fired, because you CANNOT allow subordinates to question their Commander in Chief. EVER!
(1) Winning the game is a goal, not a strategy. If you change your plan to play to the strengths of the backup QB, you are changing the strategy - as you should (2) WRONG! Subordinates must have the right to question their Commander in Chief - otherwise you are only surrounded by yes-men.

However you cannot allow subordinates to belittle their superiors, so he definitely should be shitcanned.

Posted by: firefall on June 22, 2010 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the profile, but from the AP report and others I don't see McChrystal quoted using contemptuous words against anyone at cabinet level or against any military Secretaries.

The 'fire him' chorus is either along the lines of Steve Clemons, defending his friends, or people who disagree with Obama's Afghanistan strategy and see this as an opportunity to force him to change it. The claim that McChrystal's comments weaken Obama are overwrought, given what has been reported so far.

I'm inclined to give Obama room to execute the strategy he chose, so I'll reserve judgement until I've read the piece in The Rolling Stone.

Posted by: tib on June 22, 2010 at 11:34 AM | PERMALINK

American Generals have been fired for less. Assuming these quotes were from his staff it is still painfully obvious that he is a piss poor general officer. Can you imagine members of Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr's staff shooting their mouths off in front of a reporter. Schwarzkopf maybe, but his staff, never.

Posted by: Ron Byers on June 22, 2010 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

The RS article is posted now:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236

Posted by: sue on June 22, 2010 at 11:38 AM | PERMALINK

If Obama feels the need to start cutting deals with rogue generals in order to carry out his policy he's completely lost the plot. This isn't a case of a general speaking the truth to an executive that is unwilling to hear it; this is a military staff that views itself as unaccountable to their civilian commanders. Leaving such a staff in place is an unacceptable risk for the country.

Does sacking McChrystal and his staff jeopordize the Afghan operations? That war has been in progress for nearly nine years. The strategic objectives sought at the beginning of that war have long since been abandoned. It is time to get out.

Posted by: rk on June 22, 2010 at 11:43 AM | PERMALINK

There is no reason not to shit can him and his staff.

Posted by: Ted76 on June 22, 2010 at 11:44 AM | PERMALINK

I can see it now: "Stanley For President".

Posted by: Milt on June 22, 2010 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

Hey Firefall? A subordinate CAN question his superior in the military. Just quietly and in PRIVATE...not in Rolling Stone or 60 minutes. Sorry Stan. It's time to take your professional integrity and resign.

Posted by: SYSPROG on June 22, 2010 at 11:46 AM | PERMALINK

I'm sorry, but perhaps its the 35 years I spent in the uniform of the United States Marine Corps that's made me incapable of understanding the proper relationship of the national command authority with the uniformed services -- but your assertion that firing McChrystal somehow puts the entire war strategy at risk is, to not put too fine a point on things, a load of crap.

Generals are replaceable. Period. End of story.

And when their words or actions undermine the chain of command they MUST be replaced because the damage done to the military by not replacing him will extend well beyond the Afghan theater of operations and across the entire military.

I was a sergeant major with RCT (Regimental Combat Team) 1 during the movement to Baghdad when Joe Dowdy was fired as regimental CO during the height of combat operations. And you know what happened when Joe was relieved of his commend?

Nothing.

We continued with the plan of the day but with a new CO.

Nobody is irreplaceable in the military and replacing McChrystal, although certainly not something Obama WANTS to do is something he NEEDS to do.

Posted by: CSS on June 22, 2010 at 11:47 AM | PERMALINK

I did not know that the NBA has quarterbacks! I thought those were all in the NFL......this is not appropriate for sports metaphors, correct or incorrect ones. McChrystal clearly does not have command of his troops, so should find something else to do now. The battle plan will remain the same, and the CIC will be stronger for it.

Posted by: withay on June 22, 2010 at 11:49 AM | PERMALINK

This is more like President Kennedy & Gen. LeMay mor than Pres. Truman & Gen. MacArthur.

Posted by: Jim Quince on June 22, 2010 at 11:52 AM | PERMALINK

This is more like President Kennedy & Gen. LeMay more than Pres. Truman & Gen. MacArthur.

Posted by: Jim Quince on June 22, 2010 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

His departure is long overdue.

Just as BP's failure exposed the burrowed in Bushies at MMS, this should expose the same creeps in the military.

Obama: get tough now, or this military will destroy you.

Posted by: jjm on June 22, 2010 at 12:02 PM | PERMALINK

Personally I'd be happy to see McChrystal fired or court-martialed as a demonstration of civilian control of the military. (Of course I'd also love to see the military budget cut in half but....)

I would not be surprised if Obama's long-term strategy is to get out of Afghanistan. Remember how he used his policy review last year to get all his top military leaders to 1) sign onto a surge strategy (their idea); 2) sign onto an accelerated timeline for troop buildup (his idea); and 3) sign onto an accelerated timeline for troop withdrawal if indicators of "victory" were not being met (his idea).

Obama may judge that firing McChrystal (or demanding his resignation) would be a short-term distraction (from the Afghanistan War strategy, from financial and energy reform, from a jobs bill), and a long-term negative for getting out of Afghanistan (by providing a rallying figure for his opponents, by providing an excuse for delay [so that the new commander can "assess and improve" the war plan], by providing an opportunity for the narrative of "the president won't let the troops win the war" to gain a foothold.

On the other hand, by keeping McChrystal, the focus stays on the effectiveness of the war strategy (and on financial reform, energy reform, etc.). Then, when time for the drawdown arrives, McChrystal is in a weakened position if he tries to object.

I could easily be wrong, but if Obama keeps McChrystal and withdraws from Afghanistan on or close to the schedule his military commanders agreed to last year then it will be another example of Obama adopting a long-term strategy and accepting short-term losses to accomplish his goal.

Posted by: massappeal on June 22, 2010 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

Get rid of him. He started off insubordinate in my opinion. I wouldn't be surprised if he was the source of all the leaks from the Pentagon when Obama was drafting his AfPak strategy and the impetus for the Fox-led public relations campaign to rush Obama to make a decision on additional troops.

Posted by: John Henry on June 22, 2010 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

"McChrystal is too big to fail. Obama needs him in Afghanistan and is far too conflict-adverse to do something so bold as fire the guy."

I think this pretty much sums up what will happen.

Posted by: mnpundit on June 22, 2010 at 12:29 PM | PERMALINK

DAY @11:18 is right - why in the world are Ackerman and Benen arguing that McChrystal IS Obama's Afghan strategy? Obama can fire him without upsetting a single thing.

That said, now is a good time to review progress and make adjustments to the strategy. The military component is a bit overrated - almost everything hinges on the progress in areas such as the 'Peace Jirga' and other political solutions.

Posted by: Ohioan on June 22, 2010 at 12:32 PM | PERMALINK

Steve has laid out the difficulties in this situation and the inherent downsides of either firing McChrystal or not. It does not appear to be about policy, but rather allowing his closest aides to give full throat to a feeling of superiority to civilians, especially the Commander in Chief. McChrystal has a fairly long standing and well documented rift with Eikenberry, which is likely to have been a driver to the loose comments given to the Rolling Stone reporter.

Obama is consistently bumping up against the stereotype of weakness inherent to Democrats. Although it is likely that he would rather have a straight talk with the General and move on, the timing has made the optics are critical. Perhaps there is a way out for Obama; put Petraeus in charge for awhile. That way the military is put in the position of cleaning up its own digressions and the President remains firmly in charge. If you read The Fourth Star, Patraeus is portrayed as a politically motivated animal and would do what is required.

Posted by: DTR on June 22, 2010 at 12:39 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if this recent spike in out and out subordination by these "Team America" lunkheads has anything to do with their anger at Obama & Congress's recent moves towards ending DADT?

Posted by: MJ on June 22, 2010 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

Whatever happens we can be sure that Obama will come up with some compromise measure that won't satisfy anyone.

Something to understand is that these kind of comments are common is private amongst military leaders. I live in an area where many of my neighbors are military officers, and I try to keep my political views under wraps. If I had taken a hidden tape recorder with me to various neighborhood gatherings I would have had tons of comments on tape just like those.

The Democratic Party, as an entity, has never really come to terms with the fact that not only does the Republican Party dominate the "hearts and minds" of the U.S. Military, they invest heavily in keeping it that way. No other views are allowed. There is a constant promotion of Limbaugh-esque thinking together with fundamentalist, end-times Xtianity that is hard for the young military recruits to resist.

Meanwhile, progressive appeals to the military fall on deaf ears. They already have universal health insurance -- as long as you stay in long enough for full retirement. They already have great pensions, educational benefits, lifetime access to base facilities likes sports and the ultra-subsidized goods at the PX, plus a set of socialist services that even some Western European countries would envy -- but only for those in the military club.

I don't think that the General and his aides made these comments with the intention of them becoming public. I think that more likely they talk like this all the time in their own in-group, and they made the mistake of letting someone inside the group who recorded and reported the comments.

The ONLY effective solution would be for the Democratic President to clean house -- retire all the military leaders who are Bushiveks and replace them with people who are, at worst, mildly Republican but generally apolitical. But Obama won't do that -- he fancies himself as being a centrist and still doesn't get that to people like McChrystal there is NOTHING Obama can do -- NOTHING -- to win their approval.

Posted by: Anonny on June 22, 2010 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

This is not equivalent to Truman/MacArthur, because McChrystal is not in the same league as MacArthur. MacArthur was a brilliant, highly successful, creative general, who demonstrated his skill both in WW2 and earlier in the Korean War. McChrystal has no equivalent track record of success. It was far, far more dangerous for Truman to fire MacArthur than it would be for Obama to fire McChrystal, though he had to do it: MacArthur was trying to start an all-out war with China all on his own.

To win in Afghanistan will require more political than military skill. We're told that McChrystal is a counterinsurgency expert, but since counterinsurgency requires setting up a political system that can remain standing after the troops go away, a guy who gets into fights with pretty much every political official he deals with is the wrong person for the job.

This isn't hard: Obama should fire this jerk. The Republicans will scream. Let them.

Posted by: Joe Buck on June 22, 2010 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

McChrystal is having a meltdown, reflected vividly by his overeager staff. Our Afghanistan "strategy" is imploding wherever it can be observed. Now would be a perfect time to break the suicidal continuity from the Cheney-Bush Afghanistan Adventure.

Thank you, Gen. McChrystal. You may stop killing now.

Posted by: Boolaboola on June 22, 2010 at 1:47 PM | PERMALINK

For all concerned, quarterbacks do not play in the NBA......but rather the NFL. Carry on.

Posted by: ted on June 22, 2010 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

As for firing McCrystal, he will still be in the US Army........its not like he will going to another army to work. So then, he will be available to train up any replacement. If done properly, it can be a very smooth transition.

Posted by: ted on June 22, 2010 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

McCrystal needs to be fired for insubordination. Period. Although replacing the commanding general with things heating up in Kandahar and within 12 months of our timetable to egin withdrawing troops is far from ideal, it would not require the development of a whole new strategy. He is not the only general in the Army.

We have a strategy that has been developed. McCrystal is in the process of implementing it. Can McCrystal and appoint someone above or below him in the chain of command to finish the job. Seriously, armies are intended to be resilient and capable of absorbing losses at any level and still functioning successfully. It's too bad this one was self inflicted, but cut the "cult of personality/only McCrystal can do it" crap, fire the guy and move on.

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