Stanley McChrystal has committed one of the worst crimes in politics, he’s told the truth. His comments on the Obama administration and its approach to Afghanistan confirm stories coming out both the country and Washington since last autumn. But the problem is that McChrystal is a soldier and not an elected politician, which raises questions about insubordination. Should he go, then? I think no. The reasons are Realpolitik, however, not necessarily ‘moral’.
- Although McChrystal is in the wrong and should be relieved in theory, President Obama can’t afford it politically. His approval ratings are low, and it wouldn’t be smart to sack a popular general for ‘telling the truth’ in the run up to his re-election campaign.
- The general’s appointment appeared to revitalize the effort in Afghanistan; if he were sacked, it would have a damaging impact on the perceptions war against the Taliban.
- It is doubtful whether there is anyone with the same kind of stature/intelligence/political and military skill to replace McChrystal, and it is also doubtful whether his replacement would be such an obstacle to drawdown/withdrawal.
The incident results from President Obama’s mishandling of Afghanistan since last autumn and also, as Andrew Exum suggests, a breakdown in civil-military relations which his administration may have caused. It would be politik for him to keep McChrystal in place but smack him down publicly, and then resolve the dispute privately – perhaps removing Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, and giving in on the June 2011 withdrawal date. This isn’t great for the principle of civilian control over the military, but the president can’t really afford to be principled given the circumstances.
Update: Response to Bernard Finel
Exum suggests that those who argue for McChrystal’s dismissal are mostly those who want to withdraw from Afghanistan, or at least drawdown; Bernard Finel has argued against a population-centric strategy, and he criticizes the attitude of people like Exum and me as the ‘military tail wagging the civilian dog’. Afghanistan is not nearly an important enough conflict to justify jeopardizing constitutional principles, he writes. Also, if President Obama doesn’t sack the general, he’ll admit he’s weak and a pushover – and how will that help the perceptions war against the Taliban?
These are fair points, but up to a point. Firstly, although Finel says that both Exum and I have lost a sense of perspective, I would say the same about him on this issue. The general made indiscreet (though arguably true) comments to a journalist, he isn’t wearing purple boots now and marching his forces on Washington to make himself dictator. Attempts to compare the incident to the dismissal of Douglas MacArthur are also wide of the mark. Secondly, this isn’t the first time in history that a general has/will force the hand of his political superiors on policy. That it has happened in the past is usually because the civilian leadership was weak; the most obvious example is in Britain and France during the First World War. Hastings’s article is a symptom of the weakness of President Obama’s policy in Afghanistan since the end of last year; sacking McChrystal won’t resolve the civil-military tension that this weakness causes. It also won’t make the president look ‘strong’, just as his beating up on BP executives doesn’t. Thirdly, the conflict isn’t an existential crises but it’s not exactly Kosovo either, as Exum says. It wouldn’t help the campaign in Afghanistan to sack its architect/commander a year after appointing him and six months after outlining the strategy he has to implement.
I believe the stay/fire dichotomy is a false one. As I say above, President Obama can keep the general in place but very publicly reprimand him; this maintains the civil-military fiction. He should then make moves privately to resolve the weaknesses in his strategy and the tensions within his team; it might not be ‘right’, but dismissing Eikenberry won’t have the same damaging political effects as firing McChrystal would. That’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the one the president is in. It’s better than him not doing anything at all for three months and then giving a ninety-minute speech about how he won’t do anything.