After an article in Rolling Stone repeating his derisive comments about senior Obama Administration officials, Afghanistan theater commander General Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to Washington for an in-person meeting to explain himself. Speculation is rampant that this may be the end for McChrystal’s career.
Well, yes and no. This is probably the end of whatever prospects McChrystal had for further promotion. As a four-star general, his rank was already at the maximum (the United States has not had appointed any five-star generals since WWII). But in theory, McChrystal could have moved up to command the United States Central Command, as General David Petraeus did after serving as theater commander in Iraq. This was, however, already unlikely, due to McChrystal’s tense interactions with Obama Administration officials during last year’s Afghanistan “strategy review”. President Obama complained about McChrystal putting him “in a box” with public comments that pressured the President to adopt a “surge” strategy for Afghanistan modeled loosely on the successes of that strategy in Iraq. After that, McChrystal’s prospects for higher command were probably already toast. These comments probably seal that doom.
But the same reason that pressure was effective are the reasons President Obama probably can’t fire McChrystal. In 1951, President Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur in response to MacArthur’s persistent and obstreperous efforts to force the President to authorize expansion of the Korean War to include China. The firing was a defining event in American civil-military relations, a demonstration that the principle of civilian control of the military extended even to an unpopular President holding control over a wildly popular general.
But the similarities between MacArthur and McChrystal do not extend far past the first few letters of their surnames. MacArthur was publicly pushing far beyond issues of operational military strategy to infringe on “grand strategy” — the overarching issue of national foreign policy. While there is always a strong interplay between operational strategy and grand strategy, MacArthur’s attempt to instruct the President not only how to fight a war but also what wars to fight represented a staggering overreach past all boundaries of the role of military professionalism as conceived of in the United States since George Washington. McCrystal’s conflicts with the Obama Administration are trivial by comparison, and confined much more closely to operational strategy which is clearly within the realm of military professional dominance as it has been understood for the past several years since Petraeus recaptured the issue from the disgraced Donald Rumsfeld.
Also, the proximate incident here is personal, not institutional. MacArthur apparently had contempt for Truman (it was a very, very long list of people who MacArthur had contempt for, and Truman didn’t even hold a particularly prominent place on that list), but the core of the conflict between MacArthur and Truman was the question of who should control the policy. The conflict was existential — in order to prevail, Truman had to fire MacArthur. In contract, McChrystal’s apparent conflict with a few Obama Administration officials is just personal. In terms of strategy, the President wound up endorsing (however reluctantly) most of McCrystal’s proposals. Whatever continuing conflict exists over strategy is tangential. And there is no evidence that McChrystal seeks to challenge any fundamental questions of the civil-military relationship. His comments were personally contemptuous towards some senior officials (though notably not the President himself). Thus, for President Obama to fire him over this would come across as petty and unnecessary.
General McChrystal is going to have to perform the ritual of subservience to show his contrition and reaffirm the bedrock principles of military subordination to civilian control. But it is probable that the fallout will stop there. McChrystal isn’t MacArthur.