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October 02, 2009

What Gen. McChrystal Said
Posted by Michael Cohen

So I've been thinking a bit about what I wrote earlier regarding General McChrystal's comments in London about US strategy in Afghanistan; particularly after Ackerman accused me of trying to fit them into an "insubordination narrative." 

Spencer has taken the time to reprint some of the direct quotes from McChrystal speech's that the New York Times missed and to be honest they are pretty anodyne. In fact, after re-reading the transcript from McChrystal's speech there is not a lot here that I find terribly offensive - McChrystal is advocating on behalf of his strategy of choice for Afghanistan.

In fact, it seems pretty clear that he is practically bending over backwards trying to avoid saying anything controversial. Didn't exactly work though; but why are we surprised by this?

His strategic review, which calls on the President to send more forces to Afghanistan or risk failure, just got leaked - right in the middle of a White House review of Afghanistan policy. It's sort of safe to say that every time Stanley McChrystal opens his mouth these days it creates news; and every time he says something that is contrary to the ongoing debate in Washington about US policy in Afghanistan - even if he isn't trying to --  it risks opening up potential cleavages between the military and the civilian leadership.

In other words, the general has given his review to the President; everyone knows where he stands. Perhaps he should stop talking so much. (And to be clear, I don't necessarily mean that as a criticism; it's more that his conduct risks politicizing a national security debate).

Indeed, we are already seeing the damage that can be done when even a sliver of daylight appears between the views of the President and his military commander. Right on cue, Karl Rove writes today in the WSJ about the President, "Refusing to provide all the troops and strategic support that his commanders are requesting will be to concede defeat."

Oy! Granted McChrystal's words might be a tad less controversial if we had an opposition party populated by adults that didn't try to constantly politicize national security differences .  .. but alas you run a democracy with the parties you have, not the parties you want.

Just to be clear, I don't have a problem with General McChrystal expressing his views even when I think he is wrong. And I wouldn't feel comfortable accusing him of explicitly leaking his strategic review to force the president's hands. But somebody leaked it; and some folks have been leaking some variation of McChrystal's argument for the past several months - and that puts undue pressure on the president to follow a particular course in Afghanistan. And it's coming from an institution that is nominally supposed to be above such public intervention in policy discussions.

My concern is when those views become part of the national discussion about Afghanistan policy and end up politicizing that debate, which as near I can tell is precisely what is happening. And just to be clear this is not a partisan viewpoint. Check out Peter Feaver's response to McChrystal's review leak:

Whether you favor ramping up or ramping down or ramping laterally, as a process matter, the Commander-in-Chief ought to be able to conduct internal deliberations on sensitive matters without it appearing concurrently on the front pages of the Post. I assume the Obama team is very angry about this, and I think they have every right to be.

Leaks like this make it harder to for the Commander-in-Chief to do deliberate national security planning . . . Obama has the authority and the responsibility to make a decision that runs counter to what his military leaders are requesting, but it is a very difficult thing for him to do.

Peter Feaver, besides being an expert on civil-military relations, is most certainly not a Democrat. As I wrote for publication this weekend in the NY Daily News, "President Obama is the only person charged with weighing the various national security implications of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan — not just from a military perspective, but also from a political and national interest viewpoint. He must be allowed to make the decision without worrying about his military commanders airing their opinions in public and pushing them toward their preferred military course."

And now I'm off this weekend to get married . . . again. Marriage then wedding - it's what all the kids are doing today!

Update: Just to show that I'm not crazy or some sort of anti-military DFH, James Joyner adopts a similar view:

This isn't exactly Douglas MacArthur territory.  Obama has yet to outline a competing strategic vision and McChrystal is essentially just making a full-throated defense of the doctrine he was sent to carry out.  But it does put his commander-in-chief in a rather awkward position.

His approach is at stark contrast to that of Kip Ward, commander of United States Africa Command, who repeatedly deflected questions about strategic priorities in his Atlantic Council appearance earlier in the week.  Each time such a query was posed, he simply noted that he takes his orders from the president and the secretary of defense.

Somewhere in between these tacks strikes me as the proper mode for four-star commanders. They should work within the commander's intent — which in McChrystal's case means that of CENTCOM chief David Petraeus as well as the president and SECDEF  — but also use their professionaljudgment in how best to carry out their mission.  When it's obvious that the president and his senior advisors are seriously considering a major policy change, however, it's probably best for the generals to provide their inputs in private to avoid giving the appearance of undermining civilian control of policy.

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Comments

"Probably in private?" I should say so.

Gen. McChrystal makes me wonder about the influence on the military of the example Gen. Petraeus set in 2007. His public statements, press interviews and appearances before Congress about the "surge" in Iraq were very big deals; obviously, the reason he was sent out to do all these things is because his Commander in Chief didn't have much credibility anymore. That had not often been the case previously, and it isn't the case now, but is it really true that senior military commanders view the Petraeus performance two years ago as an exception rather than a precedent?

it's more that his conduct risks politicizing a national security debate

Yeah, I'm pretty sure that ship sailed as soon as senators started publishing op-eds directed at the President in the Post.

We closed our News Bureaus around the world and punditry substitutes for correspondents. The media and their partisanship is useless to those of us who want unfiltered news.

You didn't need to cede ground to Ackerman. Wunderkind that he is, he's on the wrong track here.

You didn't need to cede ground to Ackerman. Wunderkind that he is, he's on the wrong track here.

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