It’s Not Insubordination When the CINC Is Barack Obama

Earlier today, the British paper Telegraph reported on Pres. Obama’s response to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s very public criticism of the approach Obama is taking to Afghanistan:

According to sources close to the administration, Gen McChrystal shocked and angered presidential advisers with the bluntness of a speech given in London last week.

The next day he was summoned to an awkward 25-minute face-to-face meeting on board Air Force One on the tarmac in Copenhagen, where the president had arrived to tout Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.

When asked on CNN about the commander’s public lobbying for more troops, Gen Jim Jones, national security adviser, said: “Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.”

Asked if the president had told the general to tone down his remarks, he told CBS: “I wasn’t there so I can’t answer that question. But it was an opportunity for them to get to know each other a little bit better. I am sure they exchanged direct views.”

An adviser to the administration said: “People aren’t sure whether McChrystal is being naïve or an upstart. To my mind he doesn’t seem ready for this Washington hard-ball and is just speaking his mind too plainly.”

That may be the understatement of the year:

In London, Gen McChrystal, who heads the 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan as well as the 100,000 Nato forces, flatly rejected proposals to switch to a strategy more reliant on drone missile strikes and special forces operations against al-Qaeda.

He told the Institute of International and Strategic Studies that the formula, which is favoured by Vice-President Joe Biden, would lead to “Chaos-istan”.

When asked whether he would support it, he said: “The short answer is: No.”

He went on to say: “Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, and nor will public support.”

Bruce Ackerman, in an op-ed at the Washington Post, doesn’t use the word “insubordination,” but he certainly suggests that’s what Gen. McChrystal is flirting with here:

As commanding general in Afghanistan, McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements. Under law, he doesn’t have the right to attend the National Security Council as it decides our strategy. To the contrary, the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 explicitly names the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as the National Security Council’s principal military adviser. If the president wanted McChrystal’s advice, he was perfectly free to ask him to accompany Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, when the council held its first meeting on Afghanistan this week.

But Obama did not extend the invitation, even though McChrystal was leaving Kabul and could have gone to Washington easily. Instead, Obama asked the general to report to the council via a brief teleconference.

News of McChrystal’s position had been leaked to Bob Woodward and was published in The Post early last week. But it is one thing for some nameless Washington insider to engage in a characteristic power play; quite another for McChrystal to pressure the president in public to adopt his strategy. This is a plain violation of the principle of civilian control.
McChrystal was almost cavalier in dismissing this point [that “Confidentiality is a condition for candid communications between commanders and the commander in chief.”]. After praising his superiors for encouraging straight talk, he laughingly suggested that “they may change their minds and crush me some day.” This is precisely backward: Generals shouldn’t need to be told that it is wrong to lecture their presidents in public. Perhaps McChrystal was misled by the precedent set by Gen. David Petraeus, who strongly supported President Bush’s military surge in Iraq in 2007. Though Petraeus publicly endorsed the surge, this happened only after Bush made his decision. Petraeus was backing up his commander in chief, not trying to preempt him.

I recall a lot of enthusiastic talk on the right, during the previous administration’s run, about the chain of command and the authority of the Commander-in-Chief — indeed, to the point where conservatives would hotly declare that Pres. Bush was “our” Commander-in-Chief (which of course isn’t true; the POTUS is only Commander-in-Chief  of the armed forces), and that members of Congress, liberal bloggers, and anyone else who dared to question Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan were all but committing treason.

Now? Not so much. Running down the roster of former chain-of-command fans, we find varying flavors of ‘What’s the big deal about a general openly challenging Pres. Obama’s Afghanistan strategy?’ Free samples:

  • Disingenuous Vanilla: “Not once is Obama identified by name as being ‘furious’ with McChrystal. As for the ‘insubordination’ charge, I have no idea where they get the idea that dismissing a strategy as one he wouldn’t favor is insubordination. Especially since no one in his chain of command (no, the VP isn’t in the chain of command) has recommended it.”
  • Underwhelming Neapolitan: “McChrystal didn’t act insubordinately by speaking his mind.  This is not even close to the situation which forced Harry Truman to cashier Douglas MacArthur in the Korean War, when MacArthur dared to publicly challenge Truman’s authority and judgment.  McChrystal may have acted in an impolitic manner, but at this point, I doubt McChrystal cares much for political niceties.  He has waited weeks for an answer to his analysis and request for more troops and resources, and he’s apparently not worried about being honest about his assessment in public.”
  • Howling Chunky Monkey: “… this business may also teach the administration something about blowing off generals at (unnecessarily extended) criticial [sic] moments and insisting that political parameters trump military ones in wartime. […] Maybe if he wasn’t so distracted with trying to have Democratic Christmas in October … an expensive tax-and-fee-subsidized health care giveaway in the middle of economic crisis and war. To be followed on by cap-and-trade’s assault on business, industry, utilities and consumers. And then you’ve got Iran, unresponsive to the extended hand of friendship. All debacles in the making. Who wouldn’t be distracted in that kind of chaos?”
  • Deeply Dishonest Blueberry Wafflecone: “But just because U.S. government officials are accustomed to doing things discreetly, behind the scenes, and without much public notice doesn’t mean that that is the best way to conduct the affairs of state. In fact, a strong counter argument can and should be made: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant,’ said the renowned Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

And an outlier:

  • Surprisingly Sensible Banana Nut:

    Back when an unpopular President Bush was hanging his defense on the war on the prestige of his top general in the theater, I warned of Petraeus Fetishism. While I continue to respect and admire the general, it violates every tenet of our system to have the generals making strategic policy decisions. The president and his team should make those calls — preferably with the input of the Joint Chiefs and appropriate theater commanders, who can advise them on logistics, timetables, and matters of feasibility — and the generals should then be left alone to run the tactical level operations within the broad parameters of the assigned political objectives. And that’s just as true in periods, like the current one, when the president is someone for whom I did not vote.

8 Responses to “It’s Not Insubordination When the CINC Is Barack Obama”

  1. McQ says:

    Nice out of context spin on the “Disingenuous Vanilla” quote.

  2. Bob Della Valle says:

    Obviously, Obama should tell Gen. McChrystal to keep his mouth shut or have that little weasel Rahm Emanuel do it. This deference to the military has gone way too far, as has this commander in chief cult.

  3. Looks like someone forgot to point out that Obamba has been sitting on McChrystal’s report for nearly 2 months … had it not been leaked I doubt we’d even know about it. Another inconvenient point is that Obamba appointed McChrystal himself … this was not inherited from Bush … yet has only met with him for a few minutes over the past 3 months!! This whole Afghanistan thing, this whole “Commander in Chief” thingie seems rather inconvenient for Obamba. He’d rather fly to Copenhagen (burning tons of fuel and costing tens of millions) in support of his corrupt Chicago buddies bid for the Olympics while soldiers are dying in Afghanistan.

    Commanders on the ground know what’s best, not politicians in DC like Obamba, Axelrod, or Rahm Emmanuel. I doubt Obamba’s ever fired a BB Gun let alone planed War Strategy … so why sit on the guy’s report and ignore him for 2 months??

    At least McChrystal is giving us some straight talk. I don’t agree with him openly challenging the President, if he did so … but during the Bush era there was no shortage of applause from the Left whenever some unknown General criticized Bush … those folks went straight on MSNBC.

    Didn’t “Progressives” tell us for the past 8 years that Afghanistan was the problem not Iraq?? Where’s Osama Bin Laden?? Obamba assured us he would do everything to get OBL … where is Osama?? Quit crying and make a decision.

  4. tas says:

    What’s being lost with commentary from the right is the notion that the military heeds to the commands of a civilian government. If General McChrystal disagrees with the president, fine. And if McChrystal’s disagreement is so strong he feels the need to resign his command, fine — if it comes to it, that’s his choice. But it’s the job of the military to execute the commands of their civilian superiors, which is much different from making policy. With his selective leaks to the press, McChrystal is straddling the fine line between obeying orders and trying to create a policy he wants. McChrystal was not elected by the American people, and therefore, he should have no say in policy until asked by his civilian superiors what he thinks. If McChrystal is unable to abide by the policy of his civilian superiors, then he should think twice about undertaking the job of being a general.

  5. I somewhat agree with your assessment tas. Firstly we don’t know who leaked the document, certainly we can’t say it was ordered leaked by McChrystal nor can this leak be tied to McChrystal right now. Second, yea, its the Military’s job to execute the orders of the President or Congress … when the orders get made … but that does not mean the Military can’t nor shouldn’t lobby the administration to go with it’s assessment until that point. Absolutely McChyrstal and other Military leaders should have a say in policy, These guys are the experts, these guys have dedicated their lives to the Military and War Strategy … many put their lives on the line. Injecting politics into War led to debacles like Korea, Viet nam, Iraq, Afghanistan … half measures and politics don’t win a War.

    Who better to assess Military needs than General’s involved in the War? You think Rahm Emmanuel, and David Axelrod can give better advice? I don’t.

    If Obama gives orders which McChrystal feels he can’t follow then I agree he should resign.

  6. tas says:

    I didn’t say that military generals shouldn’t have a say in the policy, or advise their civilian superiors on what they think the best course of action is. As far as military actions in the field go, generals are the experts. But it’s the civilian administration which makes the final decisions about policy. If a general is trying to use other channels beyond advise and consultation to effect this policy, that is wrong — it’s undemocratic and unconstitutional because the generals were not elected by the American public. If a general has strong disagreements with the policy from the civilian administration, to the point where they don’t think they can execute their orders, then its time for the general to step down.

  7. How is it undemocratic or unconstitutional for a General to speak out? Unelected bureaucrats throughout DC and in the Courts make policy all the time… Perhaps its been more tradition than anything for a General to remain silent … Obama can fire this guy at any time, so that’s what McChyrstal risks through his words. MacArthur was fired for similar actions.

    In some ways the Public benefits from hearing McChrystal speak and reading his report for ourselves. Again, we don’t know how the report got leaked. But I wonder about this speech, is it unusual for a General to give a speech like this? Certainly MacArthur spoke a lot .. He is NATO Commander so maybe the folks in London wanted to hear from McChrystal, invited him to this forum because he commands their troops as well.

    Anyway, looks like this report (which was ignored for 2 months) is finally getting some attention in the White House.

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