cross-posted at Dagblog
If you tune out the upcoming storm of spin, distraction and hype, what just happened is very simple: a general whose strategy has failed has tried to tie the Commander-in-Chief's hands by running to the press. McChrystal's goal was to create a political situation inside the Beltway in which the President would face problematic amounts of criticism if he changed either the unsuccessful strategy or the unsuccessful commander.
It's insubordination in an attempt to conceal failure, the full McClellan. It is a threat both to our Constitutional traditions and to the proper military defense of our nation.
When President Obama took office, he made a decision to commit further resources to gaining some credible form of victory in Afghanistan. It would have been easier in some ways for him to plan a simple phased withdrawal from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of Obama's political base was against any extension of the war. At that time, McChrystal promised that his own strategy, backed by a certain number of additional troops, would achieve certain results in a certain time frame. Based on those promises, Obama approved McChrystal's strategy instead of others (including strategies based on troop drawdowns), committed more troops, and gave McChrystal the Afghanistan command.
McChrystal has not delivered the promised results. The recent American offensives have not achieved their goals, and it's increasingly apparent that McChrystal's plan isn't going to work. So, having let the President down, McChrystal has attempted to cover his backside by letting the President down. He has permitted his aides to commit insubordination by slagging the civilian authorities around Obama to the press, and to relay McChrystal's own personal contempt for the Commander-in-Chief. Of course, McChrystal delegated aides to do this, not being man enough to take responsibility for his own insubordination.
Some right-wingers are going to take up McChrystal's cause and depict Obama as a soft, decadent civilian and McChrystal as a tough, upright, honorable soldier. But nothing about McChrystal's behavior is remotely tough, honorable or upright. He is treacherously backstabbing the leader who promoted him. McChrystal's ability to work back-biting and ass-covering into the same motion just shows how very supple and flexible his character is, and how little he's burdened by any spine. McChrystal is willfully violating the military's code of ethics and conduct. He is trying to duck his own command responsibilities by whining and slinging mud. And he's sent his deputies to do it for him. I'm having a hard time seeing any soldierly virtue here.
But more importantly, there's a question of our Constitution at sake. As I've pointed out before, civilian authority over the military is one of the central principles for which the American Revolution was fought. The Massachusetts Minutemen were fighting to end a military governorship of their colony. George Washington went to enormous pains to make clear that the Presidency was a civilian and not a military office, and that every military officer served the civil political authority, the power delegated by the people. The Constitution designates the President as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces for exactly this reason.
Over the last few decades, parts of the right wing in this country have tried to use the phrase "Commander-in-Chief" to mean exactly the opposite of what it means, to imply that the President is somehow a military officer and thus answerable to the military's norms or the military's approval. This is completely backwards. The intent of the Constitution and its Framers is that the military exists to serve the people, not the other way around, and so the military must be absolutely subordinate to the country's elected leader. George Washington wrote that chain of command. It's not for Stanley McChrystal to go outside it.
Civilian authority over the military is necessary for any real democracy; you can't have a democracy if a bunch of people with guns refuse to honor the elected leaders. But it's also a smart principle for national defense. A military that isn't accountable to any higher power is a military that allows itself to stick by strategies after they stop working. Giving the generals and admirals freedom to make all the decisions can actually make the military less effective and the nation less safe. Someone has to have a veto when a field commander is too stubborn or proud to admit that things aren't working, or when the military brass refuses to accept changing times. Sometimes you need a politician like FDR to tell the Army that cavalry has become obsolete. Sometimes you need a civilian like Lincoln to replace a West Point thoroughbred like McClellan. What gave Lincoln the right? The Constitution. What made some Illinois lawyer think that he understood strategy and tactics better than General George McClellan? The facts on the battlefield. That McClellan went whining to the newspapers and the opposition party only confirms the man's unfitness.
The same old truths are true today. If McChrystal can't win the war in Afghanistan, he shouldn't try fighting one in the media. And if we start letting the paper battles of the news cycle decide how we fight our actual wars, our country will lose over and over again.