Gen. McChrystal: Should he stay or should he go?

Ken Allard Retired U.S. Army Colonel
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So should he stay or go, be fired or forced to resign? Because all commissioned officers serve at the pleasure of the president, Obama has every right to fire General Stanley McChrystal, either for apparent insubordination or over the bad judgment for which the general has already apologized. Little question there: No wartime commander in his right mind should have granted any reporter a solid month of apparently unlimited access to him and (even worse) to his personal staff. If he’s feeling charitable, Obama could just bust McChrystal back to three stars – maybe throwing in the additional duty of performing KP on the weekends for the next 90 days.

This is an especially surprising lapse for a general raised in the shadow world of black ops. Media mavens, no less than special forces, understand that proximity is the preferred way to insert a knife under the fifth rib – or in the back. The Rolling Stone reporter may wind up with a Pulitzer for his cleverness in providing direct quotations, gathered in unguarded moments and carefully selected for lethality. “Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?” One of his aides then responds, “Did you say: Bite Me?” Other watch-words of the piece included “too Gucci or “too gay” – fighting words in the clash of military and media cultures.

It is not easy to foresee how this incident will play out, especially since McChrystal’s immediate superior is defense secretary Robert Gates – justly famed for being intolerant of repeated mistakes. The basic arguments:

1.    Insubordination:  Despite the easy, alliterative comparisons between Mac Arthur and McChrystal, remember that Doug defied JCS orders and demanded that China be nuked; Stan privately dissed, well, just everybody who’s anybody on Obama’s national security team. Powerful Democrats like Congressman David Obey huffed, “General McChrystal’s comments are not the first time we’ve seen a general contemptuous of his civilian superiors.” But the article often attributes these insubordinate comments to unnamed aides. McChrystal also kept private his reservations about Obama’s style even after being publicly dressed down when his own confidential assessments were leaked.

Key question:  Can McChrystal still function effectively on a team for which Obama remains responsible – and where the stakes were already high?

2.    Arrogance & Stupidity: If arrogance was a disqualification from public life, then Washington would be just another pretentious small-time village. But liberal blogger Michael Cohen was incensed by McChrystal: “I guess after you rolled the White House last fall through a calculated series of media leaks and public appearances to support a troop surge … you pretty much think you can get away with anything.”

Many of the Obama elites undoubtedly feel the same way — while arrogance is a civilian prerogative, its appearance among the unwashed military classes is uppity and unforgivable.

Key question: Will Obama gain more credibility from firmly firing or magnanimously forgiving the man Rolling Stone described as the “Runaway General?”

3.    Counter-Insurgency: The article’s real purpose came in its last few lines: “So far, counter-insurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war.” It is surely no accident that the article was released just as the Afghan surge reached its height — when strengths and inevitable difficulties were thrown into sharpest relief. Whatever his other failings — as diplomat, politician or policy wonk — Stanley McChrystal has the “deep-seated instincts of a terrorist hunter” — those rough, ruthless and sometimes blood-stained qualities needed to command our war in Afghanistan.

Key Issue: Would Patton ever succeed in today’s Army? When Obama decides McChrystal’s fate, we will surely find out.

4.    Presidential Leadership: From Iranian nuclear intransigence to the Gulf oil disaster, there is a steadily growing consensus that Obama is to leadership what eggs are to bacon — engaged but not committed. Such judgments might be corrected by firing General McChrystal as a show of strength: but who would replace him? And would American policies in Afghanistan and elsewhere benefit from relieving the second commander to be placed in that most demanding – and maybe impossible — position?

Key Issue: Rolling Stone also underlined the persistent divisions within the administration’s foreign policy establishment — flaws that cannot be corrected by dismissing one man.

As Les Gelb summed it up in yesterday’s Daily Beast, “Whatever righteous anger McChrystal had on his side … he and his staff had no business, and no right under the chain of command … to say what they did to the Rolling Stone reporter, or anyone else.” Exactly right. But how Obama reacts to this improbable crisis will help to define his foreign policy — maybe even his presidency.

Colonel Ken Allard (U.S. Army, Ret.) is a draftee who eventually served on the West Point faculty, as dean of the National War College and as a NATO peacekeeper in Bosnia (which seemed like a huge deal at the time). His most recent book, Warheads: Cable News and the Fog of War, is a memoir of his 10 years as a military analyst with NBC News and MSNBC, where he and Tucker Carlson were conservatives-in-residence.