Whether He Likes It or Not, Obama Must Command

We didn't need this. By "we" I mean the large majority of citizens who want America to succeed in Afghanistan. By "this" I mean the Rolling Stone article which quoted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides saying uncomplimentary things about Barack Obama, Joe Biden and other civilian officials.

It's true that most of the negative remarks were attributed to staffers rather than to McChrystal himself. And it's true that none of them amounts to insubordination or refusal to carry out orders, the offense for which Gens. George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur were appropriately fired.

But a commander has the responsibility of setting the tone of his subordinates. And it is astonishing that a general would give such ready access to a writer from Rolling Stone, especially one who is, as the article makes clear, skeptical about the general's strategy.

He is not the first president to head a national security establishment that is divided and distrustful, as the Rolling Stone article confirms.

Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman correctly noted that McChrystal's comments "are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between the Commander-in-Chief and the military." And that "the decision concerning General McChrystal's future is a decision to be made by the President of the United States."

It surely must be an excruciating decision for President Obama. He installed McChrystal in his post after removing his predecessor and he largely agreed to his strategy last December after a three-month review--though he added a July 2011 deadline for the start of troop withdrawals.

Like most American presidents, and like all presidents during the past 50 years, Obama came to office with little preparation for being commander-in-chief.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and both Bushes had served in the military, but not at a level that gave them much insight in evaluating military commanders. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and the younger Bush as governors commanded state National Guard units, but that's nothing like commanding the world's largest military forces.

Unfortunately, there's not much correlation between the skill set needed to win the Iowa caucuses and the Super Tuesday primaries and that needed to decide on military strategies and to select the appropriate commanders for different military operations.

Obama's decision-making on Afghanistan so far could be characterized as splitting the difference. He added troops early on and opted for McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy while propitiating his party's left wing with something in the nature of a deadline for withdrawal.

While backing McChrystal, he also appointed as our civilian leader in Afghanistan retired Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who disagreed with McChrystal's strategy. By all accounts, including Rolling Stone's, they have not had the close cooperative relationship that Gen. David Petraeus and civilian honcho Ryan Crocker had in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

A president is entitled to take political factors into consideration in making military decisions. Franklin Roosevelt, who of all our presidents showed the greatest gift for selecting the right general or admiral for particular assignments, ordered the invasion of North Africa in 1942 against the unanimous advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He believed that the American people and our allies needed to see America taking decisive action in the European Theater, even in a peripheral location.

Obama leads a political party which before his election argued that Afghanistan was the good war (and Iraq the bad one) but which is now divided on whether we should persevere there. He faces an opposition party which mostly supports our course in Afghanistan but is worried about our prospects there and fears a premature withdrawal.

He is not the first president to head a national security establishment that is divided and distrustful, as the Rolling Stone article confirms. And he is surely not the first president to be the subject of disparaging remarks by his military subordinates.

But unfortunately those remarks have come out into the open in a way that makes it very hard to go on splitting the difference. If Gen. McChrystal has to go, as seems likely as this is written, then it may be time to consider other changes in personnel.

And it may be time for Obama to embrace a word he has been reluctant to utter: Victory. His duty is to set a course that will produce success, to install the people who can achieve that goal and to give them the backing they need.

We didn't need this, and Obama didn't either. But he wanted the job, and now he must command.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.

Photo credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza

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Michael
Barone
  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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