With General Stanley McChrystal having met privately with both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama today, the controversy over derogatory remarks he and his staff made about key members of the Obama administration, and the President himself, in Rolling Stone appears to be headed for resolution one way or another. While the story calls into question the wisdom and media savviness McChrystal and his staff, it leaves Obama in a decidedly lose-lose situation.
Lobbying for a troop increase publicly following the leak of his formal request last Fall, McChrystal placed Obama in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the recommendation of the man he personally selected to prosecute and ultimately conclude the war in Afghanistan and his political base that clamored for an end to America’s seemingly fruitless and open-ended occupation of Hell’s half acre. While some charitably characterized McChrystal as merely being a step ahead of Obama’s ultimate decision, others saw a political gambit that undermined the principal of civilian control of the military and a challenge to the President’s national command authority.
In light of the remarks covered in the Rolling Stone piece, the position of those who believe the latter is significantly strengthened by what appears to be a culture of open contempt of the administration and key members of the National Security Council among McChrystal’s command staff.
That being the case, what are the President’s options at this conjuncture?
The involuntary reflex response, and preferred choice of many of the President’s supporters, is to fire McChrystal outright. While doing so may be viscerally satisfying, the downside is the creation of a leadership vacuum in the field immediately prior to what is billed as another critical phase in the ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan – a campaign designed by McChrystal himself. In addition to this, the permanent replacement for McChrystal would in all likelihood take the reins of command with less than a year on the clock till the hard withdrawal date Obama promised when announcing McChrystal’s surge last December. One wonders if a new country commander can both continue to press McChrystal’s grand strategic vision while simultaneously preparing the ground for an impending massive troop draw-down.
Accordingly, Obama has what may be referred to as the “H2″ option. Under “H2″, McChrystal would retain his command after enduring a hefty bit of public humiliation, topped off with a heaping helping of humble pie. Following the requisite mea culpa, the general would return to Hell’s half acre chastened for the remainder of what in all likelihood will be his final command.
In contrast to this, there are reports that McChrystal is prepared to offer his resignation today. While this is certainly rooted in a sense of honor, were Obama to accept it it would further erode his credibility – the decision must be his and his alone. While tension between the career military and the civilian political leadership has been an historically reoccurring fact of life, power is constitutionally vested in and decisions are ultimately the responsibility of the President and his designee, the Secretary of Defense. In firing McChrystal and refusing to accept his resignation, Obama publicly reasserts the principal of civilian control of the military.
Beyond the realm of constitutional principals, there is also the very real world concern of presidential perception and America’s national security. Currently, though personally popular among adoring throngs the planet over, there is considerable doubt among his peers – as well as America’s antagonists – about Obama’s resolve. Indeed, the perception of Obama among world leaders belies the image one normally associates with a veteran of the rough and tumble, cut-throat Chicago political scene. To retain McChrystal with little more than a hearty serving of humble pie as his punishment would reinforce the perception of an irresolute and weak-willed president. The implications for America’s national security are potentially significant as her adversaries and antagonists are emboldened and increasingly believe they can challenge or disregard her with impunity.
Thus, McChrystal has forced Obama into a position where he must prove to the military and the world that in addition to speaking softly, he can wield Teddy Roosevelt’s proverbial big stick. Ironic that the open wound of George Bush’s Afghanistan strategy has forced his successor to choose between his self-styled image as “the Thinker” and that of folksy-but-resolute “Decider” of his predecessor.
Stay tuned faithful readers as General McChrystal discovers the answer to the Clash’s 80′s lament – should I stay or should I go now? “If I go there will be trouble, if I stay there will be double”, indeed.