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Friday, June 25, 2010

Obama relieves McChrystal, but smoke means fire

According to this week’s headlines Obama relieved General Stanley McChrystal who had been recalled to Washington this week for allegedly criticizing colleagues and administration officials in comments he made to Michael Hastings, the author of a recently published Rolling Stone article.

Obama has been waiting for an excuse to fire McChrystal since shortly after appointing him to head the war in Afghanistan and then realizing McChrystal has forgotten more about warfare and insurgencies than Obama’s advisers Biden and Holbrooke could ever hope to know in a lifetime. There has always been a disconnect between McChrystal and Obama, which was made even wider when McChrystal submitted his request for additional troops in order to properly execute the counterinsurgency effort initiated by Petraeus when he was appointed commander of Central Command (CENTCOM). Both Biden and Holbrooke opposed the strategy outlined by McChrystal and Petraeus; Biden even composed his own counterinsurgency strategy, which was a clumsy and amateur effort at playing army by the vice president.

The reason given for his firing, according to a CNN article, is that “McChrystal’s remarks…undermined the civilian control of the military ‘at the core of our democratic system’.” However, none of the individuals at the butt of the mockery are legally part of the military’s chain of command; therefore, they have no constitutional authority or control over the military. The individuals named in the article, Gen. (Ret.) James Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor; Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry; and Richard Holbrooke, the senior State Department official assigned to Afghanistan and Pakistan, are all advisers to Obama, but do not control any part of the military. The chain of command goes from the commander on the ground, in this case Gen. McChrystal, through the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to the President. Nowhere in that list does the name of Biden, Jones, Eikenberry, or Holbrooke fall. This may simply be a case of semantics, but if the president is going to relieve a commanding general during a time of war, he should at least do so based on facts and not simply on emotion.

The fact that Obama’s key advisers were derided by senior military leaders potentially reflects the low regard in which his decision-making abilities are held, and is the reason the General was relieved. Supposedly, Gen. McChrystal and his staff ridiculed Obama’s “national security team with locker-room bravado.” But there must be a reason the General and his staff made these comments. Usually, where there is smoke there is fire. In other words, the top military commanders who interact on a regular basis with the Commander-in-Chief must know something that the rest of us do not. Additionally, if these comments reflect the low regard in which these individuals are held by the senior military leadership in Afghanistan, as a former Soldier, I can guarantee that that regard is even lower the further one travels down the chain of command, which does not bode well for how the military writ large perceives Obama’s leadership abilities, the control he has over the military, his strategic decisions, or his ability to manage our current wars.

As I wrote the other day,

[aside from Gen. (Ret.) Jones, none of Obama’s National Security team has military, much less combat, experience. Obama has surrounded himself with theoreticians, academicians, and wishful thinkers as opposed to experienced doers, which explains his dithering on the decision of whether or not to send additional troops as requested last year by General Petraeus. It is no wonder Holbrooke has yet to “lay out clear goals for the region,” especially since he assigns critical positions to kids such as Ronan Farrow, who was only 21-years old when appointed as a Special Adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan. I do not care how book smart a person is, or if that person was considered a child prodigy and entered college as soon as emerging from the womb, unless a person has the field experience, the real world familiarity with such a critical issue, book smarts do not cut it.]

Obama set the stage for how the wars would be managed, or not managed, and forecasted his relationship with the military leadership shortly after taking office. He procrastinated on the “strategic review” and the decision to meet the personnel requirements of his commanders on the ground, McChrystal and Petraeus, thus calling in to question their experience and motives. The General tapped to fill the void in the wake of McChrystal’s firing, David Petraeus, was the one who submitted the request for additional personnel to accomplish the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan back in 2009—a strategy based on lessons learned from his successful effort in Iraq. Obviously Obama has more regard for the advice of his civilian advisers, Holbrooke, Eikenberry, and Biden and Gen. Petraeus should tread cautiously into McChrystal’s role. Petraeus would be wise to remember his strategy in Iraq was implemented under Bush. If he fails to toe the line and agree with the doctrine outlined by the inexperienced, civilian advisers content to play army with other peoples’ lives, he also may find himself on the front page of liberal newspapers with headlines proclaiming Obama’s superior decision-making ability. If immediately firing someone is the epitome of great decision-making, then every Burger King manager who has fired someone during the lunch rush should be similarly heralded in the media.
Though the military is not supposed to be political or have politically-biased views of the administration in charge does not mean they do not harbor these views and feelings behind the office doors or in the barracks rooms on a Friday night. The majority of the military is contemptuous of the control Obama has over the military and is wary of his leadership abilities. It is for this reason that Obama’s backers and most of the liberal media are painting his firing of McChrystal as “a prime example of strong and decisive leadership.” They need to divert attention away from the real problem, Obama’s lack of command presence and general strategic knowledge, which are both a result of not having enough military experience in his inner circle. The New York Times, writing “[Obama] appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive,” made his decision seem equivalent to Kennedy’s decision to blockade Cuba or Reagan’s decision to replace the air traffic controllers. Yet it took Obama almost half a year, during a critical period in the war, to make the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Firing a general does not an Alexander the Great, or Kennedy or Reagan, make.

Why are these media outlets not digging deeper for the reasons why McChrystal and his aides made these comments? Usually where there is smoke there is fire. There is obviously a problem between the Obama administration and the military. Many lessons have been written of the White House’s involvement in the Vietnam War—particularly the lessons about too much civilian involvement in war decisions. Even more recent, there are crucial lessons to be learned from the Bush administration and the meddling by Rumsfeld and his lackeys at the Department of Defense. Evidently those lessons have not been learned by those occupying similar positions today. Is it right that an inexperienced president and his “yes men” advisers are allowed to continue to force their will on our military, even if they are legally allowed to do so, without having their decisions or experience called into question by those who are ultimately responsible for carrying them out? Should the military sit idly by while civilian leadership allows the nine-years we have invested in Afghanistan with blood, sweat, and tears to amount to nothing? At the end of the day, like we saw in Iraq, even if civilian leadership or advisers in DC are the ones calling the shots, it will be the generals who pay with their career and the Grunts and Leathernecks on the ground who pay with their lives.

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