McChrystal's Folly

06/23/2010 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By the end of the day, the career of General Stanley McChrystal will be over. If not, President Obama will be sowing the seeds of even more confusion and disagreement over his policy in Afghanistan than he has had until now.

Following the emergence of the controversial interview with Rolling Stone magazine in which McChrystal showed little diplomacy in describing other Administration officials involved in Afghan policy, the President has been left little wiggle room. He cannot possibly allow the impression of dissension to continue without appearing to be weak or indecisive, not at a time when so much negative news about Afghanistan is appearing on the front pages of the nation's major newspapers almost every day and McChrystal's most vocal ally is President Hamid Karzai.

It reminds me of the last major confrontation between a U.S. president and one of his top generals in the midst of the Korean War. It was Truman versus MacArthur. Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur in which the four-star general thought he was bigger than the nation's elected leader. Granted McChrystal has not gone that far. He has not even criticized President Obama. But where discretion was called for, the commander of all forces in Afghanistan did not remember his history.

In October 1950, President Truman had a war on his hands in Korea that was growing in unpopularity when he ordered MacArthur to meet him on Wake Island in the middle of the Pacific. Truman wanted to remind his general who was in charge. The message did not take. Six months later, after assuring the President that the Chinese Communists would not enter the Korean War and then they did, MacArthur publicly advocated the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese and threatened to bomb the mainland. Truman had enough. He fired the general. It was shocking news across the nation. The man from Missouri was pitted against a genuine military hero of the Pacific War who had accepted the surrender of Japan on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.

It ignited a nationwide storm of criticism, mostly from Republicans. I was on my way to Korea as a GI draftee when MacArthur was greeted by a tickertape parade in Manhattan. House Speaker Joe Martin then invited MacArthur to address the U.S. Congress that was televised nationally. In his closing remarks that have remained in the history books, the general declared: "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

McChrystal's plight may be something less serious, except to say the controversy over Afghanistan is mounting at a time when McCrystal has chosen to draw swords with just about every prominent member of the Administration. The General does not seem to have as many allies and the President, faced with a multitude of other problems, is running out of time. The principle of civilian authority is at stake.