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Stanley McChrystal is no Douglas MacArthur or George McClellan. But President Barack Obama has treated him like one.
Harry Truman sacked Gen. MacArthur, commander of American forces in the Korean War, for publicly attacking his acceptance of a divided peninsula. Abraham Lincoln fired Gen. McClellan, commander of the Union Army, for a lack of aggression against the Confederate forces. McClellan didn’t help his case by avoiding the president, refusing to disclose his campaign plans, and privately referring to Lincoln as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” a “gorilla,” and “ever unworthy” of the presidency.
By all accounts, Gen. McChrystal, who commanded the American forces in Afghanistan until yesterday, agrees with Mr. Obama on wartime strategy and goals. His sin? He harbors a low opinion of his commander in chief.
According to an unnamed aide quoted in a Rolling Stone interview, Gen. McChrystal said that Mr. Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass in his first Pentagon meeting as president. Their first face-to-face meeting after Mr. Obama had appointed Gen. McChrystal to take charge of the Afghanistan war went worse. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” an aide was quoted. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive deleted] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”
For these anonymous, second-hand remarks, the president summoned his commander to Washington yesterday for an explanation and then fired him. According to White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, “the magnitude and greatness of the mistake here are profound.”
Mr. Obama has now put Gen. David Petraeus in charge of the war in Afghanistan. It’s an excellent choice, but taking over at this point is dicey. American forces are waging a fierce counterinsurgency effort against a resurgent Taliban, with fewer troops and resources than needed for victory, while keeping to an utterly unrealistic deadline of July 2011, when the president has announced his intention to begin troop withdrawals. Replacing commanders right before the summer’s main push into Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds could prove disruptive to American success.
Nevertheless, Mr. Obama may have had little choice but to fire the general to restore civilian control over the military. And for this no-win situation, he has only his partisan allies in Congress to blame. It directly and predictably arose not from the war in Afghanistan, but from congressional efforts to undermine the Iraq war and the war on terrorism during the Bush years.
The U.S. Constitution makes the president “Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” Civilian control keeps the government free from threats of a military dictatorship, focuses the military on fighting the nation’s wars, and promotes decisive, energetic government during crisis by concentrating authority in the president. “Of all the cares or concerns of government,” as Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 74, “the direction of war most peculiarly demands those qualities which distinguish the exercise of power by a single hand.”
Congressional Democrats spent the Bush years undermining this fundamental principle of constitutional government. True, civilian-military relations had already been on the wane. Generals overtly fought President Bill Clinton’s effort to integrate gays in the military. Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, published a 1992 editorial opposing intervention in Bosnia. Other military officers successfully resisted a large intervention in Haiti in 1994 to stop human rights abuses and blamed civilian leaders for the humiliating 1994 withdrawal from Somalia after the deaths of 18 American soldiers.
Military resistance reached a crescendo under President George W. Bush. Fueled by Democrats eager to add kindling, generals openly feuded with Defense Department officials over the number of troops needed for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 2006, in what has come to be known in the American military as the “revolt of the generals,” dozens of senior retired officers publicly called for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Military lawyers publicly opposed the administration over the use of military commissions to try al Qaeda leaders and whether the Geneva Conventions governed counterterrorism operations.
Liberals in the media and Congress eagerly joined the chorus for Mr. Rumsfeld’s head. They manipulated the generals’ revolt to support their opposition to the administration’s Iraq and terrorism policies. They undermined the president’s ability to receive forthright, confidential military advice. Presidents won’t trust generals who may run to Congress or the press at the first sign of disagreement with the military’s consensus advice. They traded short-term political gains against Mr. Bush for the Constitution’s promise of long-term political stability.
Now the bill is coming due, and it will cost Democrats more dearly than Republicans. Scholars have observed that the officer corps has become increasingly conservative in the last few decades, the result of self-selection and the end of the draft, Republican Party outreach, and the disappearance of the national security wing of the Democratic Party. Soldiers who have risked their lives for their nation on the fields of Afghanistan and Iraq do not like to hear elected politicians calling their wars unjust or devising the fastest way to withdraw.
The nation, of course, is nowhere near a military coup. But it has witnessed the growing independence of the military from political control, accelerated by a Congress and media opposed to an unpopular president. His party’s political myopia has forced Mr. Obama to choose between battlefield progress and the constitutional authority of the commander in chief.
John Yoo is a visiting scholar at AEI.
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