Generals and Politics

October 3rd, 2009

obama_mcchrystalWhen President Obama was in Copenhagen, unwisely risking the prestige of the presidency on Chicago’s Olympics bid, he managed a hasty 25-minute meeting with General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan.  McChrystal was in London at the time, unwisely speaking about U.S. strategy to the Institute for Strategic Studies.

The purpose of the meeting on Air Force One in Denmark, which carried with it an implication of urgency, may have been for Obama to look McChrystal in the eye and say, “General, stop making public statements about strategic issues that I haven’t made a decision on.  When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”  I don’t know if the President said anything like that, but he should have.

McChrystal crossed the line in London.  Among other things, he reportedly used his speech “to reject calls for the war effort to be scaled down from defeating the Taliban insurgency to a narrower focus on hunting down Al Qaeda.”  It’s not the job of military officers to publicly advocate their policy preferences, particularly in the midst of an ongoing decision making process.

Contrast McChrystal’s behavior with that of General David Petraeus, who publicly advocated the Iraq troop surge.  The big difference is Petraeus did it with the approval of the president and defense secretary, who had already made their decisions, while McChrystal is apparently attempting to influence the President’s strategic decisions by going over his head and speaking out publicly.

There have been facile comparisons between this and the behavior of General Douglas MacArthur, who publicly challenged President Truman’s decisions on numerous occasions until Truman famously fired him.  While this situation may seem similar, MacArthur occupied a singular place in military history, with fame and an independent political following that almost insulated him from the normal rules.  No military officer since, and certainly not McChrystal, has had that kind of political power.

McChrystal is required by law and tradition to operate and offer opinions within his chain of command, which goes through General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to the President.  The only exception is if he’s called before Congress and specifically asked for his personal opinion, in which case he must give it.

What we don’t need now, of all things, is even the appearance of a break between the military establishment and the President.  General McChrystal knows the rules, and he should follow them.

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10 Responses to “Generals and Politics”

  1. Brian Bagent |

    A breakdown in discipline is usually a result of poor leadership. Did they (this administration) or did they not ask McChrystal to delay the release of his report?

    I worked under conditions not unlike this. “Do your job, but don’t do it so well…” It did not sit easy with me, and apparently it isn’t sitting easy with the general, either. He needs to retire, or Obama needs to fire him.

  2. Jerry Firman (oldfogey) |

    I surely appreciate your comment on Newsvine concerning Col. Jacobs’ article and the inclusion of the information in your article above. I am proud to know you, sir. I doubt if we ever met but I had three tours in RVN. 73rd Aviation when it first went over with Birddogs. 1st Cav and others flying Huey’s and Chinooks in the middle. Flying a desk on the third. Hope to see more of you on Newsvine. Thanks for being here.

  3. Lisa |

    Certainly GEN McChrystal is not operating within the Commander -in-Chief’s intent. But that begs the question, what is the CINC’s intent? When your predecessor was fired from the job and your chain of command has no vision, it must be difficult to sit idly by and twiddle your thumbs. That said, he should be with his troops directing the current mission and maintaining good order and discipline.

  4. Tom |

    Brian and Lisa, I agree with both of you. I’m sure it’s frustrating for General McChrystal to find that the strategy he left town with is about to change — or maybe not. Bad as that may be, he needs to keep quiet and do his job, which does not include making public statements on political/strategic issues that are pending the President’s decision.

    Jerry, I don’t know if we ever actually met, but your name seems familiar. We undoubtedly ran across each other somewhere along the way. I was with the 119th Assault Helicopter Co, 52 Avn Bn in 1965-66 and the 4/77 ARA Bn, 101st Abn Div in 1969.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    Lisa, the problem for McChrystal (for any general worth his salt, really) is that without clear orders/clear mission goals, they often times get in trouble for running their mouths or for doing things outside the scope of whatever the “mission” happens to be.

    “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” and all that.

  6. larry |

    You and I have “chewed” on this one before. I still can’t change my stand based on your logic. To date, Obama’s behavior in handling Afganistan gives every indication that he doesn’t have a clue as to what he should advise McChrystal to do. If the General is smart he will maneuver to get fired rather than let this President’s failures drag him down.

  7. Brianna |

    Tom, stop me if I’m wrong b/c my experience with the military is limited, but I was under the impression that officers are not permitted to play politics while in active service. That means, like Tom says, that unless specifically asked to give his opinion, McChrystal is required to toe the party line and follow orders. This may not be fun; it may in fact suck horribly. But the rule about serving officers keeping their noses out of policy decisions is pretty iron-clad.

  8. Tom |

    Military personnel aren’t allowed to be directly involved in politics — running for office, serving as political appointees, advocating for candidates or attending political functions in their official capacities, etc.

    However, they’re routinely very involved in the decision making and policy making process, when called upon. What’s inappropriate is going outside the chain of command and personally advocating a policy position or attempting to influence a policy decision — which McChrystal has done recently.

    Military officers carry out their missions, even if they disagree. They can, and are expected to, state any concerns or disagreements they may have, but once a decision is made, they execute it. The only acceptable alternative is to request to be relieved or to resign.

  9. Brian Bagent |

    This is what comes of electing a no-load, feather merchant, community organizer. For God’s sake, he has less real world experience than George Bush the younger had, and Bush’s experience was woefully inadequate. He ran the Rangers poorly, and the real power in Texas politics is in the Lt Governor’s office, not the Governor’s.

    One would have thought that electing the inexperienced Kennedy would be enough of a history lesson for us. Apparently not, because we keep doing it, and that’s all we seem to run: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, George Bush, Hillary, Obama, Sarah Palin, John Edwards… the list seems endless. If we are going to elect a King, which is what it seems that most want, at least elect someone that is kingly.

  10. doris |

    Should we elect the, oh so experienced,oh so great ones, like,Reagan? Sometimes, the inexperienced can learn quickly,and who is really qualified to be president,before they have been one?

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