McChrystal Firing Complicates War Plan

Washington Matters

McChrystal Firing Complicates War Plan

Obama needed to send a message and he did. Now he needs to win the war.

The examples of presidents firing commanding generals have been flying thick and fast ever since news broke yesterday of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s interview with Rolling Stone. The most frequently cited instance is Harry Truman’s sacking of Douglas MacArthur over the latter’s public opposition to Truman’s conduct of the Korean War. Abraham Lincoln relieved four commanders of the Army of the Potomac in less than two years -- including George McClellan, whose insubordination matched if not surpassed that later shown by MacArthur. One columnist, The New York TimesMaureen Dowd, even drew a comparison to the novel and film Seven Days in May, in which the deeply unpopular President Jordan Lyman forces the resignation of lauded Chairman of the Joint Chiefs James Mattoon Scott when he determines the general is planning a coup d’état.

Compared with the behaviors of MacArthur, McClellan and the fictional Scott, McChrystal’s offenses are relatively petty. The principle at stake, though, was identical: civilian control of the military chain of command.

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McChrystal had already overstepped the line once last October in his remarks to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He was lucky to keep his job then. He had to know there would be no second chances. This time, he had to go. No doubt that McChrystal’s unnamed staff members, who made some of the more extreme remarks in the Rolling Stone article, will also be handed their walking papers.

President Obama needed to send a message to the military as a whole that contempt for civilian authority will not be tolerated, even in the interest of keeping a talented general in place at what may well be the most critical campaign of the war. An equally important message was that rules that apply to enlisted men and women also apply to the top brass. Whatever they may think of Obama, Vice President Joe Biden or other civilian leaders, officers are likely to be far more guarded in what they actually say going forward -- not just before reporters but to each other.


How McChrystal’s firing affects the conduct of the war in Afghanistan is another story. Obama took pains in his Rose Garden speech to say that he and McChrystal were of one mind on the strategy for prosecuting the war. Naming David Petraeus as the new Afghanistan commander will minimize the disruption that is sure to follow. Petraeus helped plan the counterinsurgency strategy. He’s well respected, both in the country and in Pakistan, whose help in fighting the war is critical.

Moreover, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, Obama sent a very clear signal, both to U.S. allies and the Taliban, that he was not going to use the flap as an excuse to drop the counterinsurgency strategy. “What I think [the Taliban] are likely to make of this is that they are not facing a weakening of U.S. resolve but that this could take much longer than they thought,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But there’s one other factor to consider: The events of the past two days are likely to exacerbate Obama’s distrust of the military, set in motion by the series of leaks last year while the president was conducting his Afghan strategy review. That by itself could hurt Obama’s ability to conduct the war. To overcome that, he’s likely to lean even more on an individual who has both his trust and the military’s: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates had been rumored to be on the way out, possibly as early as December. If Obama is smart, he’ll persuade the secretary to stay on at least through the end of his current term.