Irrespective of anything he said, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, committed a clear breach of traditional standards by even agreeing to give an interview to Rolling Stone magazine. Presidents and defense secretaries make policy decisions, and military officers, from the lowest to the highest ranks, are obliged to follow orders without public comment. To be sure, civilian authorities ask military chiefs for private counsel on the best means to fight a war, but final decisions on grand strategy are the responsibility of the president. If a top officer feels strongly that his commander in chief is mistaken, he can resign and take his case to the public as a private citizen.
The precedents are clear. During World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall, the country’s highest-ranking officer, was so determined to stay out of politics that he made a point of refusing to laugh at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s jokes. It was Marshall’s way of preventing his being co-opted by a president who might wish to use him for political purposes. And Marshall was of course discreet about what advice he gave the president.
In the fallout from General McChrystal’s remarks, many have pointed out that when Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly defied President Harry S. Truman over how to fight the Chinese in Korea, the president fired him. Indeed, MacArthur had crossed a line, and Truman knew he could not be allowed to set a precedent. “If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military,” Truman later wrote. “If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.”
General McChrystal, however, is not Douglas MacArthur. His misdeed was not an insubordinate demand for a change in grand strategy. Rather, it seems more like a few mindless expressions of irritation at higher authority in a magazine he probably never reads: snidely mocking Vice President Joe Biden with the comment “Biden … Who’s that?”; complaining about frequent e-mail messages from the administration’s special representative to the Afghan war area, Richard Holbrooke.
Couldn’t one dismiss these remarks as relatively harmless examples of poor taste by a general burdened with a difficult, if not unwinnable, war? If so, the appropriate punishment might be a public slap on the hand. That would certainly insulate President Obama from accusations that he was overreacting to a misstep by a good soldier who has already apologized.
If only things were that simple. It is impossible to believe that General McChrystal didn’t know exactly what he was doing. Surely he understood that an interview with a left-of-center magazine would produce headlines across the country. He was reading the president the riot act.
So, while this was not the sort of overt defiance that MacArthur challenged Truman with, it was defiance nonetheless. And the only fitting punishment is dismissal.
There is, in fact, a better historical analogy than the MacArthur controversy: President Roosevelt’s approach to Gen. Joseph Stilwell, the top American commander in East Asia during World War II. Stilwell never openly defied the president (except in the privacy of his diary, where he was scathing). He did, however, treat Chiang Kai-shek, China’s Nationalist leader, disrespectfully, even calling the generalissimo “the Peanut.”
Roosevelt, who believed it was essential to keep Chiang and his armies in the war against Japan, complained that Stilwell could not treat Chiang “the way we might … the Sultan of Morocco.” The president removed Stilwell from command — not because he had directly defied the White House’s authority, but because he had lost his usefulness as an instrument of the president’s policy.
The same now is the case in Afghanistan. The president will surely take heat if he replaces McChrystal, and critics are already claiming that any reshuffling at the top will make it impossible to begin drawing down American forces next July, as the president has promised. In fact, the opposite is the case: the best way to ensure that we keep to the timetable is to designate a top commander who will closely follow the lead of his commander in chief.
Robert Dallek, the author of the forthcoming history The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.