To fire General Stanley McChrystal or not to fire General Stanley McChrystal? That is President Barack Obama’s question — and big, fat dilemma.
Do we now need more evidence that smug punditry written with certitude actually has a short shelf-life, polls are snapshots in time, and partisan scenarios about the future will miss key factors that are invisible (until they become visible)?
Today President Barack Obama will make a decision that is most assuredly going to change the political calculus in America and influence forever how he is portrayed in history books. Perhaps it’s too melodramatic to say it’s a “make or break” moment or to use that obnoxious cliche “a defining moment.” But what Obama decides will likely influence how he is perceived not just within the military but among his supporters and adversaries in the United States and abroad, and historians.
Although the partisan juries on each side may already have decided, the juries that matter — public opinion, the impact on a sagging war, the historical context, and the historical impact on future Presidencies — will take a bit more time to be completely decided.
But if a journey begins with one step, Obama today will soon embark on a big trip when he decides whether to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the shoot-at-the-lip general who along with his flip associates dissed Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other civilian and even military bigwigs in a Rolling Stone magazine piece that will go down as a classic. A Rolling Stone editor repeatedly stressed in interviews that McChrystal & Associates knew the material that was going into the piece.
The subtitle of the magazine’s “The Runaway General” iis that the General never kept “his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.” If so, the signs are now mounting that the “wimps” are about to strike back and that McChrystal could soon be out of the job (and most likely get phone calls from Fox News asking him if he’ll be an analyst).
There are many arguments for and against Obama keeping McChrystal or firing him. But in the past 24 hours since the story has broken there has been a sense of deja vu: much of the reaction by the end of yesterday had evolved into predictable partisan reactions, nearly obscuring the issue of whether the military and its civilians who under the constitution oversee it can give a pass to insubordination that could undermine command and control structure.
But, due to the emerging partisan takes on the issue, it’s clear Obama faces a lose-lose choice on this.
If he fires McChrystal, some will say it shows he lost control of the military, many in the military don’t respect him or his team (which some insist is the case), and is booting a person whose military qualities make him virtually irreplaceable in Afghanistan . If he doesn’t fire McChrystal, it’s likely in the future more military in various ranks will feel free to indulge in politics or use media to denigrate those with whom they disagree — and it’ll send a broader message to lower ranks about how strict rules are about obeying orders and not questioning higher authority really aren’t that strict after all.
Here are some of the positions and developments that emerged as of late yesterday:
But there are several realities:
1. No matter what Obama does he will be under fire here and abroad.The print media may be on the skids, but internet and broadcast media are going if not in generating revenue, than in generating loud opinion that is picked up by mainstream media. T
2. News reports about an ashen faced Robert Gates listening as Obama talked about deciding whether to boot the general buttress reports that Obama’s war team hopes the General can somehow stay on because he is valuable to the war effort. But other reports suggest that many others agree: this may be one instance that simply cannot be given a pass.
3. Whether the decision he makes is a good one or not won’t be known until further down in the road. News articles and blog posts — including the one you’re reading now — really don’t have a clue as to its real impact and meaning.
4. What the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Dick Polman calls “the McCain/Fox/Limbaugh nexus” most likely has its statements and commentaries pre-written now — one for each alternative. Obama the wuss (the general stays) and Obama created the situation that made a good patriot leave his post (the general goes). And internet sites and blogs add to the synergistic mix.
5. Obama has to look at the long-view on the war. If removing the General would indeed sandbag America’s chances to meet at least some of its goals in Afghanistan, firing McChrystal could be a net negative and not in the country’s best interests.
Here’s a cross section of new and old media reaction to this story:
—Two items from First Read (which should be renamed Must Read):
From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Will he stay or will he go? According to NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, Gen. Stanley McChrystal arrived at the Pentagon earlier this morning, before his meeting later today at the White House with President Obama and his national security team. When Mik asked the general if he offered his resignation, McChrystal replied, “Come on, you know better than that. No!” Of course, no one is sure what Obama will decide to do after this morning’s meeting, but it’s clear that the president is facing a no-win situation. The downsides to keeping McChrystal: it would create the perception that it damages the chain of command and civilian authority over the military; it would raise doubts about Obama’s toughness (a spate of “Is Obama tough enough” columns are probably just a “click send” away); and it could hurt troop morale (if McChrystal is saying these things about the administration, what would the troops think of the White House?). But if Obama decides to keep him, it will be because the president believes it will damage the war effort.
*** A no-win situation: Here are the downsides to firing McChrystal: it would force Obama to scramble to find another general; it would re-open the entire debate over Afghanistan; and it would probably embolden opponents of the current Afghan strategy (one which the president is “completely invested in” as an aide re-emphasized to us yesterday). But if Obama does fire him, it will be because the president believes this is the final straw for McChrystal (after the Pat Tillman controversy and the general’s previous criticisms of the administration). Yet whatever Obama decides, we guarantee this: This will become a chapter in every book about Obama’s presidency. It is a giant moment. In fact, you could argue that everything that has happened in the past three months — the Gulf spill, Europe’s economic problems, the Arizona immigration law — all deserve their own chapters.
[ABC’s Jake] Tapper reports that the general has conceded that he has “compromised the mission”. That surely means he is out. When even Bill Kristol and Eliot Cohen have dropped him, it’s curtains…..McChrystal was always a wild card. From his cover-up of the Tillman death to his toleration of brutal torture in Iraq, he was enabled and supported by all of official Washington. It is not a “low blow” to note the consistent thread here. And it is surely understandable that McChrystal’s men – who had pioneered the Ralph Peters macho kill-and-torture-first policy – found counter-insurgency so, well, gay.
Although some of Obama’s closest advisors have warned that McChrystal’s approach risked getting the U.S. bogged down in an unwinnable war, the president has shown no interest in revisiting the course he set last December.
With the oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, continuing economic woes and congressional midterm elections looming in the fall, Obama is unlikely to want to take on reassessment of the war strategy so soon after choosing this course.
For that reason alone, McChrystal, the chief advocate of the administration strategy, may survive, despite the ignominy of being summoned to Washington for his comments to Rolling Stone magazine.
Firing McChrystal would also probably ignite fierce debate in Congress, with some Republicans charging that Obama had sacrificed an effective wartime commander because of comments that, while intemperate, did not challenge the course set by civilians. Opponents in Congress of the current strategy would probably respond by pressing even harder for a shift in strategy.
In December, Obama essentially sided with McChrystal, who recommended a troop buildup and a dedicated counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan. And he rebuffed, at least for the moment, Vice President Joe Biden and other advisors, who expressed skepticism about the strategy.
In the last twenty-four hours, a wide range of voices have spoken up regarding their opinion of what the President should do in this situation. The Afghan government, for example, is expressing concern that replacing McChrystal at this point would endanger the success of a military policy that he pretty much drafted himself, and there are some here in the U.S. raising the same concern. In today’s Wall Street Journal, though, Eliot Cohen argues that President Obama doesn’t really have a choice, McChrystal must go….I agree with Cohen, McChrystal has to go. At some point this afternoon I expect the announcement to be made.
The White House denies that President Obama is heading into his MacArthur moment Wednesday morning.
It was 59 years ago that President Harry S. Truman had his showdown with Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the midst of a frustrating, slogging war that ended up with no victor and no real end. History does not repeat itself, of course — as Mark Twain said, at best it rhymes. And give Mr. Obama’s aides this much: The swaggering General MacArthur, with his corncob pipe, open shirt and insouciant conviction that he was working for idiots, bears little resemblance to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the lean runner who has become the greatest advocate of counterinsurgency.
But in the resolution of the MacArthur showdown, the country learned a lot about Harry Truman. Whether General McChrystal stays or goes for what he said to Rolling Stone — and for his staff’s vivid, MacArthur-like declarations that their civilian bosses were clueless and their European allies were wimps — the nation is likely to learn a lot about Barack Obama.
In the common telling of events, General MacArthur was relieved of duty because he dissented from Truman’s strategy, arguing that the surest path to real victory was to take the Korean conflict into Chinese territory. On Tuesday, White House officials were quick to argue that their differences with General McChrystal were not over strategy. After all, when the great Afghan policy battles were fought last fall, General McChrystal won most of what he wanted, including a troop surge — winning over a reluctant new president.
I agree this is a lose/lose for the President no matter how he handles it. I don’t agree with Keith [Olbermann] that we’re going to see a “humbled” Gen. McChrystal that will help him redefine the mission in Afghanistan. We need to redefine the mission there, but I don’t see how McChrystal is the man to do that and tragically Obama does not appear to have any interest in getting us out of there either.
Personally I think he should accept his resignation, but given the political climate ….I would suspect they’re right and he keeps him, at least for a while.
Reasonable people can conclude, and many have, that the comments in the article are just not at the level where a dismissal is warranted. Everyone can read them, and no one can point to any line uttered by the general that challenges the president’s strategy or undermines confidence in McChrystal’s willingness to implement it.
By contrast, it seems indisputable that changing commanders will in fact disrupt the war fighting effort, no matter how quickly a change occurs or how competent the new general. There is a major offensive in the offing and one already underway. It is true that no one man is inispensable to any effort, but neither should unnecessary obstacles be thrown in the path towards success. The president can rise above this –and the vice president can help him do so– or he can continue to display the very thin skin that his marked his first 18 months in office.
—David Bromwhich writing in the Huffington Post:
To accept his resignation seems therefore a bad choice and the only possible choice. It amounts to an assertion of command: the very thing that was aborted by the general’s comments and the vulgar contempt for civilian authority he countenanced and seems to have fomented among his staff. But to assert command brings responsibilities; thus far in his presidency, Barack Obama has shown a relish mostly for the sound and posture of command. He has preferred to suggest, to delegate, to invite for consideration. He likes to say that inaction is unacceptable. But in visible matters of policy, he has hesitated to choose clearly and have it known that he wants things to go a certain way.
Loose comparisons have been ventured between the present conflict of civilian against military authority and the confrontation that led President Truman to fire General MacArthur in the Korean War. The parallels are closer than most people seem to realize. MacArthur trashed the chain of command by telling right-wing auditors and the press that he was being restrained, to the country’s great cost, by an incompetent president. He intimated that the only sure way to victory in Korea was a war with China. He did what he could to provoke such a war, and he gave the Republican House Minority Leader, Joe Martin, a letter to read on April 5, 1951, saying that there was “no substitute for victory.” Thus he characterized the Truman policy in Korea as a doomed half-measure, a bleeding ulcer. This was the last of “an apparently unending series of indiscretions,” as the London Times called it — an apt description too of General McChrystal’s conduct and comments. On hearing of that letter of MacArthur’s, Truman would later recall, “I was ready to kick him into the North China Sea.”
President Obama, reflecting that he would like to talk to McChrystal “directly before I make any final decision,” does not give the impression of having arrived at so sharp a verdict. But it would seem that events have made the decision for him. You cannot have a commander in the field who thinks and talks that way.
Here’s “Rolling Stone” contributor Michael Hasting talking to CNN’s Andrerson Cooper about his article:
Should he keep his job? ABC asked this question of a prominent General:
Here’s CBS’ scene setter this morning:
Watch CBS News Videos Online
Now you can follow Joe Gandelman on Twitter.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.