BOSTON - To fire or not to fire? That was the question facing President Barack Obama just last week.
Would he better have suffered the slings and arrows of his outrageous general? Switching commanders in mid-surge is not something easily contemplated. But then again, if it needed to be done ‘twere better that Gen. Stanley McChrystal be replaced by his own boss, David Petraeus, to avoid serious disruption of what looks more and more to be a losing war. Petraeus has now been swiftly confirmed by congress as McChrystal's replacement.
No doubt McChrystal deserved to be fired. For a general to make the kind of remarks he did about his commander-in-chief is a firing offense.
Obama had bet the war backing McChrystal's decision to surge. His vice president, Joe Biden, was against it. In retrospect Obama's big mistake was to announce ahead of time that he would begin drawing down troops by July 2011. Of course there were caveats. He could postpone the withdrawal, or make it so minimal that it would not change the war effort. But by announcing it Obama lost the confidence of Afghanistan that he is in for the long haul, and of Pakistan which has its own interests to protect.
It is now clear that the July 2011 date demoralized his senior officers in Afghanistan as well.
It has long been evident that that Obama's Afghan team was in disarray. The military deeply suspects the civilian efforts, especially in the form of Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.
Holbrooke is not famous for getting along with people, and at the very least Obama needs to more clearly define Holbrooke's role. When Holbrook sends emails to top generals - which McChrystal deeply resented - is it just advice? Or is Holbrooke firmly in the chain of command so that his emails can be considered orders?
Should Holbrooke be emailing McChrystal at all, or should he communicate with generals through the defense department chain of command?
A complicating factor is that McChrystal has made public statements before about the war that have been deeply resented by Obama's civilian team, and seen as trying to force the president's hand. Generals should never be seen to publicly differ with their civilian bosses. The founding fathers, educated in the classics, clearly did not want hero generals crossing the Rubicon and coming home to Rome to become Caesars. Back when Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur during the Korean war there were Europeans who were amazed that Truman did not move a single regiment into Washington to prevent a MacArthur-inspired coup. Happily the American system of civilian control of the military has never cracked.
Generals can, and do, run for president however. Gen. Grant won the White House after the Civil War as did Dwight Eisenhower after World War II. There were those who wanted MacArthur to run after he was fired. I suspect that the GOP would like nothing better than to run Gen. David Petraeus against Obama in 2012, if only they could persuade the general to run.
If the war had been going well for McChrystal and Obama the entire issue would not have been so volatile. But the war is not going well. The Taliban don't show any sign of letting up. Although McChrystal's surge has not yet run its course, there is little indication that the Taliban is being defeated. It retreats before a NATO show of strength, but then filters back again. The war has now gone on longer than World War II, and it will soon pass in length the Soviet Union's doomed effort. Obama called it the necessary war, but it's original goal of defeating Al Qaeda was botched when Osama bin Laden and his cohorts escaped to Pakistan. Now we allegedly fight on to keep Al Qaeda from coming back, but why would they want to come back when it is more comfortable in Pakistan?
Politically, the McChrystal affair is just another in the string of disasters that Obama has had to face since taking office. It cannot help but hurt him, though McChrystal really didn't leave Obama a choice.
Like the French World Cup soccer team, sent home in disgrace after insulting the coach, McChrystal's exit means that the Taliban will advance to the next round.