President Obama and His Generals

President Obama removed his second Afghanistan war commander today, accepting the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal over his remarks in Rolling Stone magazine. This president and some of his predecessors have removed top generals in war time, notably Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman.

To put it very simply, Obama’s general violated the chain of command; Truman’s threatened to make his own policy; and Lincoln’s couldn’t win.

In 1950 and ‘51, President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur were engaged in a very public dispute over the degree to which Communism should be engaged in the Far East. The general wanted to rollback the threat, which in the war situation present at the time meant pushing Chinese forces across the Yalu river separating Korea from China. In effect, MacArthur wanted to continue the fight IN China and use every means possible–including a nuclear strike–to defeat Red forces. Truman favored a containment policy: restore the Korean peninsula to the pre-war status quo and thus lock Communist ideology in the position it already held (which was official U.S. policy through the end of the Cold War).

Naturally, in the face of irreconcilable policy differences, the president should have and did win. Truman said

It is fundamental … that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner prescribed by our laws and Constitution. In time of crises this consideration is particularly compelling.

MacArthur was replaced by General Matthew Ridgway and the war ended in stalemate two years later. MacArthur returned to the United States and enjoyed a hero’s welcome (my dad saw his ticker tape parade in Chicago).

At the outset of the Civil War, Geroge B. McClellan was the top field commander in the Union army, subordinate only to the aging general Winfield Scott. But he excelled in garrison training, in keeping his troops well-supplied and drilled. But he was a ditherer on the battlefield and exasperated President Lincoln, who is supposed to have said that he’d like to “borrow” McClellan’s army sometime since the general wasn’t using it. Through Burnside, Hooker and Meade, Abraham Lincoln simply could not find an Army general who could defeat Confederate forces. So much depended on the North securing notable victories in the eastern theater–such as keeping Europe out of the war and keeping northern states in the war–but a succession of generals in blue could not deliver the knockout blow to the boys in gray.

When U.S. Grant wrapped up his business out West, including the defeat of Vicksburg and Chattanooga in 1863, and became available to lead the effort in the East, Lincoln appointed him commander over other generals there. Whereupon Grant began a year-long slugfest with Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and other rebel forces.

So, Lincoln replaced generals who failed to demonstrate the capacity to achieve one of the administration’s chief war aims: defeat of Lee’s armies. As commander-in-chief, it was President Lincoln’s perogative to direct and lead Union forces as he saw fit, and Lincoln certainly exercised that enormous responsibility with grace and patience.

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will have lasted nine years come this fall, about as long as the most significant period of U.S. fighting in Vietnam, and longer than any other U.S. military conflict. War aims have shifted; two presidential elections have occurred in which the war featured prominently; and over 1,000 American servicemen and women have died. And yet recent reports suggest that the Taliban are making some gains while al Qaeda forces regroup and grow stronger in Pakistan. Some suggest, too, that General McChrystal’s own strategy is not showing the promise it had initially, given unsatisfactory progress in the recent Marja offensive. This remains a debatable point.

President Obama inherited this war from his predecessor but has clearly made it his own. In replacing former commander McKiernan for McChrystal and thus promulgating the latter’s Afghanistan surge strategy, Obama lashed himself to the general and the policy. But McChrystal’s intemperate comments in Rolling Stone (and those of his staff) about the civilian chain of command caused a firestorm in the halls of power.

About the change in command, the president said

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general … It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

Obama also referenced the divisions within his national security advisers that some say contributed to the derogatory comments made by General McChrystal and his staff, stating, “now is the time for all of us to come together. … Doing so is not an option, but an obligation. I welcome debate among my team, but I won’t tolerate division.”

It appears, then, that President Obama exercised his authority as commander-in-chief against a serious breach in military decorum, a public airing by a top military leader of contempt of the civilian chain of command, while affirming that there is no change in overall strategy toward Afghanistan. In fact, Obama has selected General David Petraeus, author and conductor of the surge strategy in Iraq, to carry on General McChrystal’s surge in Afghanistan.

General McClellan openly disliked President Lincoln (and later became his presidential election opponent) and couldn’t deliver on the battlefield. So Lincoln canned him (and others). General MacArthur, who was a significant global figure in his own right before Harry Truman took over the presidency upon FDR’s death, DID deliver on the battlefield, but threatened to take it too far by making national policy on his own. Today, we have a top theater commander (in America’s most significant current theater of war), violating basic principles of civilian-military relations in a very public way, and perhaps demonstrating some incapacity to successfully wage his own strategy, but not disagreeing on the fundamentals of national policy.

The U.S. Constitution is opaque in many respects, but very clear on the authority of the president over the military:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States

Whether or not President Obama and General McChrystal had any daylight between them on Afghanistan policy is actually beside the point. The Constitution and two centuries of civilian/military practice and tradition demanded the outcome we saw today.

– by Fred Dews, 2010

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