There is a chain of command in the U.S. military that leads eventually to one place: The White House.
That’s where Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, will appear today for a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama. It’s where McChrystal will learn of his fate in the wake of a Rolling Stone magazine interview in which the general and his staff mocked many of the president’s military advisers and McChrystal expressed reservations about Obama’s war strategy.
We don’t have any insight into what the president may do with the general. But we do know Obama has every right to show McChrystal the door.
Simply put, military leaders are expected to take their complaints about war strategy up the chain of command, to the president if necessary. They are not supposed to publicly criticize their boss through the media.
To his credit, McChrystal acknowledged his error Tuesday, without mincing words about being misquoted or claiming his comments were taken out of context. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and it should never have happened,” he said.
But that may not be enough to save McChrystal’s job. Like President Harry Truman dealing with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, or Abraham Lincoln and Gen. George McClellan, Obama needs to be sure that McChrystal is committed to carrying out the policies of the president, not attempting to pursue his own agenda. And McChrystal has already raised doubts about Obama on an earlier occasion, when he complained that the president was slow to order additional troops to Afghanistan.
One can certainly disagree with or raise concerns about Obama’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. But changing those policies is the purview of citizens at election time, not dissenting generals. The founding fathers made clear that ultimate responsibility for military action rests with elected civilians, not active-duty military leaders.
There are conflicting reports of how effective a commander McChrystal has been in Afghanistan. Some observers say he is the perfect general — austere and tough, but sympathetic to the local populace — to lead the effort against the Taliban. Others say the restrictions he has placed on U.S. forces about where they can patrol, when they can use their weapons or call for artillery support have placed our troops in danger and increased casualties.
No doubt McChrystal feels greater frustration than most people about the difficulty of fighting a guerilla enemy in a backward country where corruption is rampant and the local army is poorly trained and equipped. But when he chose to turn those frustrations into public criticism of the Obama team, the general abandoned the chain of command and left his future in the president’s hands.