Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Obama should follow Lincoln's example

President Obama would be well within his prerogatives to fire General McChrystal. The general has shown magnificent bad judgment in allowing the Rolling Stone journalist to see his pique with the President and others in the administration and civilian leadership in Iraq. He has apparently fostered an environment where his aides felt comfortable laughing at the general's civilian critics to a reporter. That is not appropriate. There are good and historic reasons why we have civilian control of the military.

But the fighting in Afghanistan takes precedence. We are at a crucial juncture there. General McChrystal is the man who designed the strategy for Afghanistan and the man trusted by both the military in Afghanistan and the Afghan government.

Daniel Foster has proposed a good solution
for President Obama.
Refuse McChrystal's resignation. The general is a man of honor, and no idiot. There's a good chance he'll show up in Washington with a resignation letter in hand. President Obama could refuse it, and then go to the public and say something like, "our efforts in Afghanistan are too important to let an unfortunate lapse of judgment like this undermine them. So I told General McChrystal that he must finish his task, and that I would not accept his resignation at this time."

This might allow Obama to look like the bigger man while having it both ways. He'd avoid adding instability to his command structure at a crucial juncture in the war in Afghanistan, and avoid looking weak by not dismissing an insubordinate general.

The messaging would be: McChrystal knew he goofed up, and came to me with his gun and his badge. But this was my call, and I did what was best for the country.
The President also needs to address the underlying problems revealed in the article. And he needs to figure out if the country is best served by having an ambassador in Afghanistan, General Eikenberry who is at odds with the commander in the field. As Eliot Cohen writes today in his column writing that McChrystal must be fired,
First, it assembled a dysfunctional team composed of Gen. McChrystal, Amb. Karl Eikenberry and Amb. Richard Holbrooke—three able men who as anyone who knew them would predict could not work effectively together. Mr. Eikenberry was a former commander in Afghanistan, junior in rank to and less successful than Gen. McChrystal, and had very differing view of the conflict. Mr. Holbrooke, a bureaucratic force of nature, inserted an additional layer of command into a fraught set of relationships. As a stream of leaks has revealed, the staffs loathe each other.

If the President believes that McChrystal can still be the most effective military leader in Afghanistan, then take this step for the good of our efforts there.

Obama could quote his favorite president. When General McClellan rudely refused to meet with Lincoln when the president had come to visit him at the general's house, the president was advised to fire McClellan. He replied,
"All I want out of General McClellan is a victory, and if to hold his horse will bring it, I will gladly hold his horse."
I don't think that even holding McClellan's horse would have given him the fortitude to win against Robert E. Lee, but Obama could borrow the sentiment.