Why McChrystal is a Gift to Obama (as Well as a "Teachable Moment")

06/23/2010 04:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, writes the following regarding the removal of General Stanley McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan:

I'm not sure I thought (Obama) had it in him. But he did. I've learned something.

What I like about this quote is how nicely it illustrates just how backwards the conventional wisdom on this kerfuffle's implications for the Obama White House has been.

There has been so much hand wringing over what a pickle the General has put the President into. Insubordination! McChrystal must be fired. But wait, won't that jeopardize the mission and impact our withdrawal timetable? And won't McChrystal just end up the next Fox News commentator, beating up on the Commander-in-Chief before an audience of millions?


Let's be serious, here. McChrystal's latest forced Obama into picking one door or the other (fire him or don't fire him), and that's only because of the fact that, given the dynamics of this episode (and to quote Rush... no, the other Rush), the reality for the President was "if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

So what were the choices, really? Not firing McChrystal would have amounted to a universally accepted diminishment of this Presidency. Period. Duh.

Firing McChrystal? Republicans will criticize. So what else is new? Fox News will screech to their congregation. Yawn.

But more significantly, observers like Marshall stood to be impressed. Why? Because expectations for decisive action by this President have steadily eroded. With today's news, Mr. Obama has stopped that slide among many -- and all thanks to a freebie. A decision he had no choice but to make, and one he had foisted upon him by no choice of his own.

Not enough of a payoff for you? Well, the benefits don't stop there. Afghanistan is a mess, and the number of observers who seriously think that this President was going to stick to his intentionally-mushy timetable for redeployment (at least in any meaningful way) has already been shrinking. Now? McChrystal's arrogance has given Obama the perfect rhetorical wiggle room to renegotiate the terms of the US disengagement with the American public. After all, we have to be responsible about this, and if Obama had no choice but to act decisively and get rid of the bad General mid-mission, who can blame him if the change of command will now require a little flexibility on the American people's part?

For Pete's sake, not only was this decision a no-brainer, McChrystal's antics are the best thing that could have happened to Obama. It has forced him to act decisively and be presidential, while at the same time bank some future credits which can be cashed in for more foreign policy inertia when he'll want it the most.

But let's put all cynicism aside, for a moment, as there's a truly positive teachable moment here for this White House. Hopefully, either the President or his advisers are observing this affair with enough intellectual detachment to note the lesson fate is providing for them.

Both public confidence and policy progress advance at least as much due to conflict as to the strategic avoidance of conflict. It's a truth that the Obama Administration and many of it's supporters among the punditocracy simply want to ignore. In Obama's case, his rhetoric seems to suggest some underlying conception of this fact, as he generally tries to have it both ways at most opportunities. On the one hand, he'll waste no time behind the scenes cutting a deal with opposing interests to avoid conflict, and on the other, he'll be just as ready to curry favor with his activist base by addressing them with the rhetoric of conflict and confrontation (see Health Care Reform).

But based on the underwhelming critical and public response to his recent speech on the Gulf oil crisis, that trick is becoming less effective. This is especially true compared with the early days of that crisis, when President Obama announced his drilling moratorium. In that instance, circumstances also forced him into decisive action, and he briefly benefited from that decisive action before quickly drifting back to his usual modus operandi and frittering away some of the goodwill his "presidential" action had accumulated.

This situation is no different. McChrystal forced him into definitive action, and the Josh Marshalls of the world are impressed. And there's no reason they shouldn't be, as I don't doubt that this President could still have found a way to be paralyzed like a spotlighted deer before ever-vigilant Republican hunters.

But the fact remains that progress will often require conflict, and Mr. Obama only engages in such necessary conflict when a situation like this leaves him no alternative. If he's been paying any attention at all, perhaps he's noticed that when he does behave in this manner which is apparently anathema to him, things improve for him.

Nobody likes conflict, but there's simply no denying any more that it's part of the job - and wouldn't anybody prefer to pick the time and the place of such conflicts pro-actively rather than simply wait around until fate thrusts them upon them?

Here's hoping it's not just Josh Marshall that's learned something from this episode. After all, our President may find that impressing people a little more often has some advantages.