McChrystal Exit: Obama and His Generals

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General Stanley McChrystal may be the first commanding general in the history of warfare to be relieved of his command because he groaned over the receipt of an email from an ambassador, or because one of his aides whispered to a Rolling Stone reporter that the president had looked “intimidated” in a meeting with the military brass.

In terms of carrying out strategy, it has been stated that the president had no military complaints about the heavy metal general, who was walking the impossibly thin red line between a general war in Afghanistan and a campaign waged only with assassinations and drone missiles.

Just a month before his firing, McChrystal successfully packaged a tour of the White House and Capitol Hill for President Hamid Karzai. In earlier media campaigns — notably when the president flew into Kabul in the dead of night to lecture a pajama-clad Karzi over corruption — the Afghan president was deemed unworthy of an American war effort.

However briefly, McChrystal had succeeded in integrating the Afghan government into the order of battle. So why was he sacked for humming a few bars of Satisfaction in the presence of a rock reporter?

No doubt McChrystal had his enemies within the bureaucracy, including the ubiquitous ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, former general Karl W . Eikenberry. Along with these two add in a legion of jealous Army politicos, all of whom would love to wear combat fatigues to a presidential photo-op.

In relieving General McChrystal, perhaps as part of a search for his mojo, President Obama joins a long line of presidents who never figured out how to command their commanders. Here’s a brief summary of some of the more complicated relationships between American presidents and their field generals:

President Lincoln— Often praised for his habits of command in the Civil War, he nevertheless promoted, endorsed, and endured the incompetence of such generals as McClellan, Meade, Burnside, Pope, and Rosecrans before winning the war with Grant and Sherman, both of whom would horrify a Senate confirmation hearing, let alone the editors of Rolling Stone.

Grant was a drunk who killed thousands at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, and Sherman once celebrated the drowning of a boatload of reporters, pointing out that maybe their “heavy thoughts” had taken them to the bottom. He also burned Atlanta. Both understood how to win modern wars.

President Madison— In the war of 1812, he had to endure generals who botched several invasions of Canada, allowed Washington to burn, and, in the case of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans, fought battles after the peace was signed. (But the Battle of New Orleans did more than Yorktown to forge American independence.)

President Kennedy— He loathed his top generals, blaming them for the Bay of Pigs fiasco and for pushing him into Vietnam, saying “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and split-second timing, but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.” Kennedy’s skepticism about the military command, however, pushed him to ignore their advice for invasion and air strikes in the Cuban Missile Crisis, possibly averting nuclear war.

Presidents Carter and Johnson— In the style of the Obama White House, these two both micro-managed their war efforts. Jimmy Carter was the air traffic controller for Operation Blue Light, the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. Lyndon Johnson boasted that the Air Force could not hit so much as “a shithouse” in Vietnam without his authorization. Both presidencies were lost due to the foreign entanglements of the commander-in-chief.

President Roosevelt— A successful example of a commander-in-chief; no president handled generals better than FDR, who was a shrewd judge of character. Roosevelt spent many months of the war in proximity to his fighting forces (including his own sons, who were serving officers). He vested authority in a number of competent commanders, starting with General George C. Marshall.

Roosevelt was clear in his strategic objectives and did not meddle, for example, in the deployment of 30,000 troops. Nor did he fire General Patton when he slapped a fatigued soldier. Imagine what General MacArthur would have said about FDR to Rolling Stone? Would FDR have cared? (Eisenhower remarked: "I spent seven years under MacArthur studying dramatics.”)

Despite all the media visibility around his decisions on Afghanistan, we know little about President Obama’s habits of military command. When he's before large audiences, he is good at articulating the role he sees for the United States in the world. For better or worse, he is unafraid to offend traditional allies, such as Israel and Great Britain. He even sided against England in a recent flare-up around the Falkland Islands.

Strategically, however, Obama rarely contradicts his military-industrial complex. Yes, he fired McChrystal, but he replaced him with his boss, mentor, and near Siamese twin, General David Petraeus, as if to imply that the only problem in Afghanistan was McChrystal’s joke about Vice President Biden.

While hitching his political star to the Nobel Prize for Peace, Commander-in-Chief Obama continues to fund Israel’s war footing, stations forces in Iraq, widens the commitment in Afghanistan, attacks Pakistan with drones, and pushes for war sanctions against Iran. In the pulpit, he is Woodrow Wilson; in action, he’s George W. Bush.

Nor has the Obama administration been able to articulate a coherent war aim behind the commitment of additional forces in Afghanistan. Look at the many mixed messages sent to Karzai, who depending on the week is “our man” or the next Diem.

The president’s current directive to his generals is to avoid casualties, hold a mountainous country the size of Texas with eight divisions, foster rural development in places like Helmand, find bin Laden, pacify the federal tribal areas, make President Karzai look democratic, train the Afghan army and police, leer across the border at Iran, and prop up a wobbly government in Pakistan — although, politically speaking, all the administration wants is enough shock and awe so that the Republicans in the 2010 mid-term elections cannot paint it as “weak on terror” or having “lost” Afghanistan.

In turning the strategic decisions about Afghanistan into an endless university teach-in (with all the allusions to “accountability,” “transitions,” and “benchmarks”), the president acts as if all the timing questions in this war were on his side. Let’s hope that the Taliban and other insurgents, especially those now planting car bombs in Islamabad, Baghdad, and Kabul, got the departmental memo that the United States would be on sabbatical in 2011.

In 1815, Andrew Jackson felt he had to attack the British the very night he heard they had landed near New Orleans. By contrast, President Obama spent a leisurely year pondering the Weltanschauung of Afghanistan and publicly ruminating about strategic options. He now feels he can afford the luxury of sacking a field general for failing to sound reverential in an interview. Aren’t there better measures of a commander? (At Bellow Wood, a Marine officer said: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here.”)

Before Lincoln could become the wartime president that we admire, he needed to find a general “who fights,” and he needed to articulate an acceptable and collective war aim, which he achieved with his Gettysburg address and Second Inaugural. He also had to come to the conclusion that Grant, drunk, made more sense than his other generals sober.

President Barack Obama meets with Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, winner of Foreword’s bronze award for best travel essays at this year's BEA. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine. He lives in Switzerland.