Gen. Stanley McChrystal put President Obama in a terrible bind. Forgive the insubordinate remarks the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan made in an article in Rolling Stone, and President Obama destroys the chain of command that puts civilians in charge of our military, condones disrespect and poor discipline in the ranks and looks like a wimp besides. Fire him, and the president risks disrupting an increasingly deadly military offensive at what may be the most critical point in what is now America's longest war.
The president will no doubt get criticism from the supposed friends of the military that his decision to replace the general puts the troops at greater risk over what amounted to a series of ill-advised jokes among General McChrystal and his staff. But more is at stake here than the egos of President Obama, Vice President Biden and other members of the president's national security staff. Civilian control over the military is a foundational principle of our nation (one established here in Maryland when George Washington resigned his commission in the old Senate chamber of the State House) and President Obama would have done greater harm by allowing such a breach to go unpunished.
This was not the first time General McChrystal had skated close to the line of insubordination. During the deliberation over whether to increase troop strength in Afghanistan or to engage in a more limited action there, General McChrystal spoke out publicly about his view that we needed tens of thousands more soldiers. That also put the president in a tough situation politically. If he had chosen not to escalate the war, he would have been pilloried for bucking the view of his top military commander in the country. In that light, the remarks in Rolling Stone start to look like a pattern.
And putting aside the issue of whether General McChrystal violated the terms of his relationship with the commander in chief, the remarks diminished his ability to be an effective leader. In addition to being insubordinate, the general's actions were sloppy and reflected a lack of discipline among his top aides. If they couldn't keep such incendiary views to themselves around a reporter holding a notepad and a tape recorder, how could they handle the complex diplomatic tasks essential to winning the war in Afghanistan? And if that's how General McChrystal believes it's appropriate to act toward his superiors, how can he expect the officers who report to him to show proper deference and respect?
General McChrystal reportedly admitted to officials in Washington that he had compromised the mission in Afghanistan. That could not be allowed to stand. President Obama had no choice but to fire him.
As for the argument that General McChrystal's talents were uniquely suited to pursuing the war in Afghanistan and that replacing him would jeopardize our immediate offensive and overall strategy, President Obama had a good answer in naming Gen. David Petraeus as his replacement. After all, General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency strategy, and as head of the military's Central Command, is in a position to know as much as anyone about what's going on in Afghanistan. The war, as Mr. Obama said, "is bigger than any one man."
With his action Wednesday, President Obama both honors the need for the military to respect civilian authority and shows how high a premium he puts on having a strong, effective leader at this critical stage of the Afghan war. At a time when the president is facing criticism for being detached and unable to exert control, particularly over his response to the Gulf oil spill, Mr. Obama made the best of an impossible situation.