03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How General McChrystal May Have Hurt Himself

In the debate about the internal White House debate on which way to go in Afghanistan, one piece has been seldom talked about - did General Stanley McChrystal hurt his own cause?

There is absolutely no doubt where McChrystal stands: He wants a massive influx of troops, to execute a counter-insurgency strategy, which includes securing the people, taking and holding of areas, and rooting out al Qaeda and the Taliban. The strategy would very much mirror what was done in Iraq. Now, leaving aside for the moment whether this strategy would work in Afghanistan, the way the General made his case may have done more harm to his opinion than good.

From his speech in England, to his interview with 60 Minutes, to the piece by Bob Woodward that detailed his fight, the General has been incredibly public, taking the debate out from closed doors. It's hard for me to criticize that in and of itself. After all, the many veterans I represent, and I, stood up for General Shinseki when he took his criticism public of the Bush/Rumsfeld strategy to invade Iraq. gave voice to Generals Eaton and Batiste, who resigned from the military so they could speak out.

But therein lies the rub - from Generals MacArthur to Shinseki, history has taught us that trying to pressure your Commander in Chief from the outside almost never results in a change of opinion from the President. In fact, it breeds tension that could lose the debate, if not your job.

For all the criticism from the left and right about President Obama, no one can argue that, so far, he hasn't deferred to military leaders on most issues. From the early days of his administration when he approved a troop increase for Afghanistan, to his ordering a study rather than a quick repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, to keeping pictures of Abu Ghraib under wraps, the President has heeded the advice of military minds, and has been backed up by the most senior retired officer in his inner circle, General James L. Jones.

On this occasion, however, Jones' response to McChrystal has been telling. Jones hasn't taken the General's side, or gone out of his way to defend him. In fact, on CNN, Jones bluntly said of McChrystal's public stance, "It is better for military advice to come up through the chain of command."


If I had to make a gut call right now, I'd say McChrystal won't get what he was asking for, but more of a hybrid strategy that focuses mainly on counter-terrorism - quick strikes against al Qaeda and some Taliban, yet some more troops to help the Afghan Army in some areas, and train them. Coming from President Obama, who is notoriously non-confrontational, that compromise strategy would mark the first time he's really said "no" to the military to any real degree, and some of that may have to do with how McChrystal handled all of this. It basically puts McChrystal on warning that he doesn't call the shots.

During the campaign, the President made a constant point of saying he wanted vigorous debate within the White House, and wanted to be told when he may be wrong. All indications are that he's getting his wish. That the debate has spilled outside the confines of the situation room, however, might not be the change he was looking for, or something he'll stand for much longer.

Crossposted at