‘Quick and Dirty’: Obama, McChrystal and Petraeus

Posted on June 23, 2010

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At Permissible Arms, Karaka describes President Obama’s press conference today dismissing McChrystal as ‘quick and dirty’. It’s a phrase that can be used to describe the whole episode, like a fight which everyone involved feels embarrassed about afterwards. A good commander has been dismissed because of poor judgement; an administration has been humiliated by some apt ridicule; it’s been taken up by some on both the Left and the Right to advance agendas, and used as a proxy war between COINistas and those pushing for withdrawal/drawdown. The only person to come out of it all well and arguably more powerful is General Petraeus, who steps down as head of CENTCOM to replace McChrystal. Bernard Finel has fortunately kept his head in assessing the appointment, but there are some points that I think are important.

To me and many outside the United States, this isn’t a great crisis in civil-military relations; one could say because it’s not our military, but I’d guess many Americans think the same too. It has exposed a rift between the administration and some military personnel, but I’d argue that responsibility for the rift lies ultimately with President Obama. He himself has created weaknesses in his own policy on Afghanistan, either matching goals with inadequate resources or by tolerating divisions within his team. That has formed the environment in which a breakdown in civil-military relations often occurs, with weak policy and indecisive leadership creating a vacuum that politically-savvy generals fill while maintaining the fiction of civilian control. As I said yesterday, this happened in Britain and France during the First World War and has happened to some extent over Afghanistan with the Obama administration. McChrystal’s behaviour is the symptom of a breakdown in civil-military relations, therefore; not its cause – the fault is with the president.

Will Petraeus’s appointment solve the issue? Finel says no, because it solves neither the civil-military breakdown nor the policy problem. It is unlikely that Petraeus will sit quietly in Kabul, he writes; his new appointment means the general can pressure President Obama into any changes he wants. This simply ‘exacerbates the problem of civilian control rather than ameliorating it.’ I’d argue that if this is what Petraeus will do, then it will solve the problem in civil-military relations because it will fix the internal contradictions in the president’s policy. This isn’t great for the principle of civilian control of the military, as I said yesterday, but what else can Obama do?

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