The Obama-McChrystal Debacle
June 24, 2010 2 Comments
They’re calling them “interviews.” I don’t know whether that’s the proper term, but statements by General Stanley McChrystal and several of his staff are reported and embedded in a narrative to be published in this week’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine. But this is already old news, rendered obsolete by developments of yesterday and today.
The Rolling Stone article reveals that the lead commander in Afghanistan has a dim view of President Obama’s leadership skills as Commander in Chief, and that the four-star general has been remarkably open in expressing his opinion on this point.
Until now, media attention has focused on the question, “What should Obama do about the ‘Runaway General’ (as the Rolling Stone article calls him)?” That is, should the President fire the general, or should he reprimand the general and send him back to Afghanistan to “complete the mission”?
If you had an opinion on that, you needed to say so by now. The question is moot, since today the President made the decision to replace McChrystal. (This won’t prevent the media from sounding off about whether that’s what Obama should have done.)
There are other questions we should be thinking about:
- Who will be damaged more by these events, General McChrystal or President Obama? If the general is damaged, it’s because he has been replaced and may lose a star from his epaulet. How much that matters to him may depend on how deeply he feels about Obama’s capacities as President. If the President is damaged, it’s because the horse is now out of the barn and (some) people will want to know more of the background behind McChrystal’s evaluation of the President. There are plenty of people who are ready to listen sympathetically to more evidence that Obama doesn’t have what it takes to lead this country through crisis events. And that’s because of evidence that Obama himself has produced. In other words, Obama’s actions in other arenas of governing lend some credit to the general’s frustrations and complaints. Whatever that means for McChrystal and his career, it can’t be good for the President.
- If, as Obama said yesterday, the general he appointed in May 2009 showed “poor judgment” in his recent remarks for Rolling Stone, what does that say about Obama’s judgment when he appointed McChrystal in the first place? Presumably it was a good idea then. Most agreed at the time. By nearly all accounts, the general was the ideal pick. But now he’s disqualified. It may appear that he has disqualified himself. But was this precipitated in any way by decisions and actions by the President?
- Is it possible that McChrystal’s peculiar strengths—which made him such an obvious choice for the command in Afghanistan—put Obama in the vulnerable position of betraying his own weaknesses as a president? Obama has been re-defining what it means to be “presidential.” But there is growing disaffection for the definition he embodies. If he surrounds himself with lightweights, he looses. But if he invites the company—and, hence, the scrutiny—of his betters, he risks exposure.
- With the President’s public denunciation of McChrystal’s judgment, can he avoid scrutiny of his own judgment as President, both in managing our military commitments and in taking his general to the woodshed? The answer is no. But it remains to be seen how this will play out.
Whatever your political persuasion, it should matter more what this debacle says about the President than what it says about McChrystal. General McChrystal has been sidelined. Mr. Obama is still “in charge.” McChrystal’s problems now are, at worst, personal. Obama’s are projected onto the rest of us.
Here, as in so much else that is Obama’s emerging “legacy,” there is considerable irony. The man who brings no executive experience to the Executive Office has summarily dismissed a man who, in his own area of responsibility, rivals all peers in his accomplishments on behalf of the United States.
Even if Obama had “no choice” but to resign the general for his insubordination, Obama’s general bungling and comparative naïvete make his decision look pretty ridiculous. He simply does not have the gravitas—even in virtue of the high office he holds—to command respect in the present situation. Adding insult to irony, Obama probably thinks he has demonstrated his gravitas in this decision. But who does this insult? Not General McChrystal. Possibly the American people. Almost certainly Obama himself.