To Fire or Not to Fire McChrystal? That’s NOT the Question!

A week ago, in reaction to General David Petraeus’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services committee (the hearing in which he nearly collapsed), I had begun writing a post arguing that the Gulf Oil spill was obscuring a far more pressing policy issue: the lack of success in the war in Afghanistan, despite Obama’s decision last December to support a military “surge” there. With more than 90,000 U.S. troops now fighting in a war that has lasted longer than the American involvement in Vietnam, the U.S. appears bogged down in a counterinsurgency strategy that may take many more years, or even decades, to achieve its goal of a stable Afghan government.

That issue is obscure no more, thanks to comments attributed to General Stanley McChrystal and his aides in this Rolling Stone interview.  Many critics are interpreting the comments as bordering on military insubordination, and suggesting (see here and here) that Obama will appear weak by not firing McChrystal. Others disagree, claiming the real weakness will come if he appears overly sensitive to comments that, in the end, provide no evidence that McChrystal is undermining Obama’s military strategy (see, for example, here.)

Historical analogies – Truman and MacArthur! Lincoln and McClellan! – are being tossed about as commentators try to put Obama’s decision in some sort of context.

What are we to make of this?  I want to take a third perspective here and argue that McChrystal’s comments are, politically speaking, largely meaningless, and that it doesn’t really matter how Obama responds. His best course of action, I suppose, is to bring McChrystal to the proverbial woodshed, give him a well-publicized but largely meaningless spanking, and send him back to Afghanistan.  After all, there’s no reprise of MacArthur or McClellan here – nowhere does McChrystal question Obama’s strategy. The current press leaks suggest, however, that Obama is positioning himself to do more – that McChrystal has offered his resignation and that Obama may very well accept it.  This will, of course, do nothing to appease critics on either side, but that’s hardly the issue here. Instead, there is a more fundamental problem that will remain no matter how Obama reacts to McChrystal’s comments: last December, after a three-month review, Obama signed on to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops there.  He did so, I argued then, without fully understanding the ramifications of his decision.

In announcing his decision to increase the U.S. military presence, Obama promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by July, 2011 – a deadline that almost everyone with knowledge of the Afghan war thought hopelessly unrealistic. Even if McChrystal is fired, the policy dilemma remains: how do you extricate yourself from Afghanistan per an unrealistic timetable when there are likely to be few positive benefits showing from the counterinsurgency strategy when the drawdown begins?

Look again at the Rolling Stone article. The underplayed but arguably more important portion in it is not the locker-room-style comments of McChystal’s aides – it’s the tension-filled meeting between McChrystal and the soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, many of whom believe the surge is not working in part because of the U.S. rules of engagement designed to protect the Afghan population.  They complain bitterly that they are not allowed to fully engage suspected Taliban who are free to move among civilians.

The exchange points to a larger issue not fully addressed by Obama’s lawyer-like military decision to build up and then draw down.  Will the strategy work? In short, it’s not McChrystal’s comments that are the real problem here. As I wrote in my initial post on Obama’s decision to reprise a version of the Iraq “surge” in Afghanistan, Obama took the lawyer’s approach and split the difference between the Biden withdrawal option and the McChrystal “all-in” strategy. In so doing, however, he essentially boxed himself in on terms very close to what McChrystal wanted all along.  With the U.S. military forces mired in what is shaping up to be a very long struggle in Afghanistan, and with U.S. casualties continuing to mount, it will be very hard for Obama to stick to the unrealistic timetable.  If he does adhere to it and begins the drawdown a year from now before the “surge” begins to bear fruit, critics will quite correctly ask: then what was accomplished by sending in the additional 30,000 troops?

Make no mistake about it: for the next few days the pundits will have a field day dissecting Obama’s reaction to McChrystal’s impolitic remarks.  But this says more about the state of today’s media than it does about the importance of the comments, the most damning of which were not even McChrystal’s. The more fundamental issue here is that Obama has mortgaged his presidency in part to a counterinsurgency strategy that has no guarantee of success without an additional contribution of troops and money and a commitment of years, not months, by the United States.  No one believes the surge will have accomplished its goals in the 18-month timetable laid out by Obama before the troop drawdown begins. And so he has left himself with two unpalatable options: remaining in Afghanistan far beyond his deadline for withdrawal, or leaving on terms decidedly less attractive than what he could have achieved by following Biden’s advice six months ago.

To Fire or Not To Fire McChrystal?  That’s not even the question. Instead, Obama should ask: What does it mean to “win” in Afghanistan, and how do we achieve that victory? Those are questions worthy of real debate.

11:12 a.m. Addendum:  For more on whether the counterinsurgency is working on a tactical level, see here.


  1. Matt, I have to disagree with your conclusion. Firing McChrystal is both fundamental to Obama his showing he can make the tough decisions a leader needs to make and to changing his Afghan policy. Once McChyrstal is gone, Obama can send his “own team” of generals over to Afghanistan to make new recommendations that will provide a an early exit strategy. No one has yet been able to answer the question of what a victory in Afghanistan looks like. To me, it looks like getting the hell out of there before the current policy collapses. A golden opportunity for Obama to show he is a tough leader and to correct a mistaken foreign policy. Question: What will Hillary say?

  2. Jack – The problem with your scenario is that there’s nothing in McChrystal’s comments (or those of his aides) that speaks to a policy dispute with Obama – indeed, the thrust of the comments are all personal (and mostly directed at Obama’s national security team.) In short, even if McChrystal is fired, there’s no easy way to link it to a change in policy without making Obama look bad. What’s Obama going to say? “McChrystal’s comments are insubordinate, and by the way, in a related issue, I screwed up six months ago and now want to reverse course in Afghanistan”? Far better to separate McChrystal’s comments from any policy decision, lest Obama feed the perception that his military strategy is driven by a thin-skinned response to some locker room indiscretions.

    I’ve written before about the one far-fetched scenario in which Hillary challenges Obama in 2012 – disagreement over Afghanistan was one of the precipitating factors. I predict she says nothing publicly beyond the boilerplate “I support the President” – the smart thing to do.

  3. Looks like I was wrong. President Obama chose the thin-skinned option.

    Matt, yours is a really prescient write-up, on a day when most of us are still reeling from the rank idiocy of yesterday’s media gossip. I think this is what you can safely call a “bad news day.” Washington’s propensity for self-annihilation on display again. Oh, and by the way, a robot meanwhile collided with the Gulf pipeline cap. They’ve been forced to remove it, and we’re back to square one, with the gusher at full intensity — 30,000 barrels a day or more.

    Personally, I agree with Jack. He’ll have to seize on this scandal to make the tough call, and cutting bait would be the least-worst option. He could stay the course in Afghanistan, as there are other competent (and now chastened) generals.

    The irony is that McCrystal is actually right. Holbrooke has chosen the path of being a Clinton loyalist and only knows how to be a bull in the china shop, while Jones has always seemed to me to be an old-school thinker. (His last job before his new post was as an oil consultant.)

    The COIN plan is genuinely as well conceived as any plan the armed forces has come up with since Vietnam. But keep in mind, “snafu” is a term coined by the military. McCrystal’s own trash-talk is par for the course in the ranks. (Has it ever really been a gentleman’s profession?) And there’s no way to rid the armed services of that sort of arrogant disdain. Civilian leaders have to work with it, and help them fix their own mess. (Ask Bob Gates.)

    One of the qualities that people most trust about President Obama is the ability to take the pressure in stride. Yet the media is about to steamroll him, because the country wanted a responsible, caretaker President to clean up after the last administration, and this is a landscape of screw-ups that has little directly to do with the Bush era.

    Matt, what I’m taking from your analysis is that this is the proverbial “test of a President’s leadership.” It’s in this kind of fast-breaking, frayed policy climate that the President’s calm will usually be (mis)characterized as weakness — as distance or naivete.

    More dirty laundry will be aired before it’s over. Hillary will be too tainted by this turn of events to run successfully against Obama in 2012.

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