McChrystal, Obama, and Authority

06/23/2010 11:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One more chance will be hard to credit. And "I am going to take a few days to decide" -- that, too, will be incredible. This was General Stanley McChrystal's third outburst of insubordination. Last September, there was the leak of his high-end preferred figure of 45,000 troops for Afghanistan. McChrystal knew the decision was not yet settled, and that his intervention, through Bob Woodward, would cause the president embarrassment. He was playing politics. Last month brought forth his ad-lib remark that the counterinsurgency campaign in Marja, which he once described as "a government in a box," had degenerated into a "bleeding ulcer." Now we have the comments that he allowed his staff to utter against diplomats, presidential advisers, and the civilian authorities in Afghanistan; and the report that, on his first meeting with Obama, McChrystal found the president deeply unimpressive.

The truth or falseness of the dicta is not the matter in question; though if the government in a box could turn so quickly into a bleeding ulcer, there must have been a fault (among other places) somewhere in McChrystal's thinking. Nobody asked him to explain or try to understand Afghanistan with these picturesque and mutually canceling metaphors.

Why did he give interviews to Rolling Stone? One answer is egotism. Another is more politicking. But for what? An additional hundred thousand troops? (From where?) A different president to serve? (But we have a system that takes care of that.) A blunt impression of insolence is left by the article. Insolence first of all -- but also a half-formed wish to be relieved of responsibility in order not to be blamed for defeat.

"I want to make sure," said President Obama yesterday, "that I talk to him directly before I make any final decision." The president also said that the article in which McChrystal and his staff publicized their scorn for their co-workers and superiors showed "poor judgment." Presumably this meant the poor judgment was the general's, not the article's, but Obama did not summon the clarity to say so.

This first presidential reaction deserves a comment in itself. Consider the situation. Someone who is supposed to follow my orders insults me in public, and what do I do? I say: the article in which he lodged the insults showed poor judgment. That is not a way most of us can imagine thinking in the first person. It is as if the president thought he could be both in his life and outside it. A curiously dissociated state of mind.

President Obama can now subject McChrystal to public chastisement, and, in a symbolic fashion, demote him while keeping him on duty. In that case, he leaves the feckless general (bound by a duty to serve him) humiliated and even more resentful than before. Or he can forgive him, and fold under his wing an inveterate subverter of civilian command. Or he can fire him, and by doing so reveal what is hardly a secret: that the Afghanistan policy is in disarray, and the failure of respect by the general offers the greatest conceivable testimony of that fact.

The first of these choices -- to humble, demote, and continue -- augurs a disaster which would begin the day the announcement was made. All the brash militarized opinion of the country would rise up with one voice against Obama and charge that he asks our men to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. McChrystal would become the permanent hero of that explosive phalanx; to part from him afterward would be unthinkable. The second possible path -- forgiveness again -- could only be interpreted as an admission that McChrystal is right. He would thereby acquire legitimate fame as the all-but-nominal commander in chief for Afghanistan.

To accept his resignation seems therefore a bad choice and the only possible choice. It amounts to an assertion of command: the very thing that was aborted by the general's comments and the vulgar contempt for civilian authority he countenanced and seems to have fomented among his staff. But to assert command brings responsibilities; thus far in his presidency, Barack Obama has shown a relish mostly for the sound and posture of command. He has preferred to suggest, to delegate, to invite for consideration. He likes to say that inaction is unacceptable. But in large matters of policy he has hesitated to choose clearly, to specify, to make it known that he wants things to be a certain way.

Loose comparisons have been ventured between the present conflict of civilian against military authority and the confrontation that led President Truman to fire General MacArthur in the Korean War. The parallels are closer than most people seem to realize. MacArthur trashed the chain of command by telling right-wing auditors and the press that he was being restrained, to the country's great cost, by an incompetent president. He intimated that the only sure way to victory in Korea was a war with China. He did what he could to provoke such a war, and he gave the Republican House Minority Leader, Joe Martin, a letter to read on April 5, 1951, saying that there was "no substitute for victory." Thus he characterized the Truman policy in Korea as a doomed half-measure, a bleeding ulcer. This was the last of "an apparently unending series of indiscretions," as the London Times called it -- an apt description too of General McChrystal's conduct and comments. On hearing of that letter of MacArthur's, Truman would later recall, "I was ready to kick him into the North China Sea."

President Obama, reflecting that he would like to talk to McChrystal "directly before I make any final decision," does not give the impression of having arrived at so sharp a verdict. But it would seem that events have made the decision for him. You cannot have a commander in the field who thinks and talks that way. There were voices even on Fox Radio -- Hannity yesterday, a guest on Imus today -- from whom that obvious judgment could be heard. "With deep regret," Truman announced on April 11, 1951, "I have concluded that the General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government."