Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Beware The Rubicon

Caption: U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, left, talks with a Czech soldier, right, during his visit to Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2009. McChrystal is the commander of International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces Afghanistan. (DoD photo by Spc. Matthew Thompson, U.S. Army/Released)

Image credit: Spc. Matthew Thompson, U.S. Army

It's well past quitting time in Washington, DC, and it appears that General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Army commander in Afghanistan, still has his job. This cannot be a good thing, even for Stanley McChrystal.

For those who aren't up on this story, Rolling Stone magazine published an article on McChrystal that included a number of quotes from McChrystal and anonymous aides, that in one way or another disparage President Obama's handling of the war in Afghanistan. In his response to the article, Gen. McChrystal did not indicate that he had been misquoted.

Reportedly, Gen. McChrystal has offered to resign, and President Obama is considering whether to accept.

This is a serious thing. It is what President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.N. forces in Korea during the Korean War. Publicly criticizing one's commander is insubordination, which is a court martial offense in the military. As former Army Colonel Patrick Lang explained today:

Our tradition is designed to prevent the emergence of "Caesarism" as a method of picking leaders or determining basic national policy. To maintain that principle Macarthur was fired on the advice of George Marshall. What McChrystal has done is to challenge President Obama. Everyone in the armed forces knows that. The notion has emerged in the COIN community that Obama is weak and can be bullied into removing the time restriction that he has placed on the Afghanistan COIN campaign plan that he adopted at their urging last year. Macarthur implicitly threatened both Roosevelt and Truman with the possibility that he would mobilize Republican politicos against them. The COIN crowd think that the same method can be used against this president. They have been willing to bet that he is no Truman and that Gates and Clinton do not have Marshall's strength. The effrontery of the deed in feeding this reporter all this material without placing it off the record is clearly a challenge to civilian control of policy.

See the McChrystal post on 30 May, 2010

I added that link on "Ceasarism", since it's possible that not everyone understands the implication of that term. "COIN", incidentally, is a shortening of "counterinsurgency", the sort of military campaign we're waging in Afghanistan. McChrystal is supposed to be an expert at it. The article that post's title refers to provides an example of McChrystal attempting to influence policy through the press, a dubious practice, also. Iraq War veteran and Vote Vets blogger Jon Soltz wrote:

The open disdain and personal ridicule of the President and his advisors by General Stanley McChrystal and his subordinates in the new issue of Rolling Stone leaves only two acceptable options: Either General McChrystal resigns or is fired.

If he has any honor, he'll step down.

I know something about this. In 2006, I worked with two Generals, appearing in national television ads critical of President Bush and his strategy in Iraq. Or, should I say, retired Generals. Major Generals Paul D. Eaton and John Batiste each made the painful decision to leave the military they loved, so they could speak out. To that point, they had held their tongues.


Because the order and efficacy of our Armed Forces falls apart without respect for the chain of command. Whether it's a grunt respecting his company commander, or a General respecting the Commander in Chief, every single thing is predicated on the integrity of the chain of command. As soon as someone - especially someone as high up as General McChrystal - violates that respect, every single person under him begins to not only question the orders they've been given from above, but is given the signal that it's OK to openly disagree or mock his or her superior.

McChrystal Must Resign - or Be Fired

Being part of the United States military means that certain freedoms that most of us have, like speaking out or quitting when our bosses do something unethical or just plain stupid, is not always an option. There are acceptable ways of disagreeing with a decision, and it's usually OK for generals to resign if they're not in the middle of a battle or some other emergency. What is not OK is loudly and repeatedly criticizing one's commander in public.

I think it's unlikely you'll find many former U.S. military officers who agree with letting McChrystal stay on.

This could also be a problem for Gen. McChrystal, should he be kept on. He will not have the trust of his bosses, and has openly disparaged some of them. Will the President and his advisers trust McChrystal's advice or warnings in the future? That is something you don't need to be in the military to see how it could work out. That McChrystal is in the military, it seems to me, just makes the working relationship that much harder to maintain.

If President Obama lets this stand, which it appears to me he will, he will have set yet another dreadful precedent for official lawlessness. In addition, his position with the military will be weakened - they will be less likely to respect him than they do now. That cannot be a good thing. And Lang's warning about Ceasarism was not an idle one - what keeps the military under civilian authority is tradition and respect for the chain of command. If Obama ignores that, there is a real danger that this will be the first of many insubordinate acts by general officers. As Ceasar and many later generals since have demonstrated, that cannot be a good thing.

(h/t Taylor Marsh for a couple of those links.)

Afterword: Due to my past employment in the defense industry, I'm often reluctant to discuss issues related to the military. This is one of those times. There is a real danger here, though, both to the military and our form of government.

I have never met Gen. McChrystal, nor do I recall any discussions about him with former colleagues, so I have only the public record of his actions as a guide.

I should probably also explicitly point out that I've never been in the military, so I cannot be considered an expert on things like military law or discipline. That's one of the reasons I looked for those quotes. Thanks to my background, I just know what to look for.

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