The McC problem

He was loose-lipped but not actually insubordinate. Accepting his apology and refusing his resignation would make Obama look large, not weak. Consider this a tentative prediction.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal made a serious error of judgment in washing his dirty laundry in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter. More seriously, he seems to have cultivated – or, at the very best, tolerated – an atmosphere in which his aides felt comfortable dissing, e.g., the Vice President. That’s a no-no.

On the other hand, this is not a MacArthur situation; McChrystal hasn’t, so far as I can see, been at all insubordinate. And whatever he might have had in mind by giving those interviews, he owned up to his mistake as soon as the article hit the Web.

There’s an argument that he has to go in the interests of good discipline, especially with respect to the key question of the subordination of the military to civil authority. But if, having been summoned to Washington, McChrystal offers both his apologies and his resignation, and if the President chooses to accept the apology and decline the resignation, will anyone else, thinking about a similar indiscretion, reckon that McChrystal got away with it? Doesn’t look that way to me.

So unless Gates and Mullen insist that McC has to go, it seems to me that forgiveness in this instance would be both good strategy and consistent with what we know of Obama’s character. In PR terms, I think it would make him look large, rather than weak.

So consider this a very tentative prediction: McC stays, and becomes a fanatical Obama supporter in case, for example, Petraeus decides to make a run for the White House in 2012.

Update Since I’m as well known for infallibility as for humility, I can only assume that someone hacked into my WordPress account to post the foolish speculation above. Obviously, Obama had to accept McChrystal’s resignation, and replace him with Petraeus. Keep your friends close, but your potential successors closer.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

14 thoughts on “The McC problem”

  1. But if McC stays, what does that mean vis-a-vis the rapport with the people he or his staff dissed viz. Jim Jones, Elkenberry, Holbrooke..etc? It's not just about the act of indiscretion but also the perceived rapport with the civilian leadership, no?

  2. Maybe the analogy with MacArthur was when he did not salute Truman at Wake Island, rather than when MacArthur tried to make policy all on his own authority and start World War III on his own initiative. There is no such thing as an indispensable general (or rather, the cemeteries are full of them). Wake Island did not get MacArthur fired. There is no indication that McChrystal has tried to make his own war policy. Firing him would seem like a bad move. The firing of MacArthur was supported by the top brass at the Pentagon, after all.

  3. The problem is he's already stepped out of line once and been corrected for it. That doesn't seem to have led to any serious reflection on his part. He doesn't seem to understand what his job is, and this lack of understanding has permeated his staff. I don't see how he or they can do their jobs properly if they don't understand what they are.

  4. I think he's trying to get fired over this so he doesn't have to take the fall when his strategy has failed to produce the desired results by Obama's deadline.

  5. Mark's indifference to torture, war crimes, and accountability therefor, bleeds over into his indifference to McChrystal's inability to run a disciplined unit.

    McC was, quite frankly, one of the bad guys in Iraq. His forces committed war crimes and he made a point of shielding them. He thus helped cultivate and tolerate Army resentment against rules, against civilian protection, against the political goals and necesities of our wars.

    That resentment underlies the scandalous remarks in the Hastings story. The soldiers *like* McC — they just want to run the war their way, with those silly rules removed. And I think they are right to intuit that, in his heart, McC would like to be doing it that way too.

    So these are not separate problems, war crimes on the one hand and lack of respect for the civilian authorities on the other. They're the same damn thing.

    Obama knew this about McC's record in Iraq, but appointed him anyway, "looking forward not backward." But, as Faulkner said, the past isn't even past. It never is.

  6. I'm with Elliot here. It's from the same era, but the correct reference is "Who Lost China?", not MacArthur and Korea. McC is making sure everyone is told any failures aren't his fault.

  7. McClellan was the other “McC.” He got himself fired and then blamed Lincoln for the problems with the war so he could run against him in 1964.

  8. I'm wondering: is there some way of disciplining McC in a way that would send an unmistakable signal *short* of firing? Could he be stripped of one of his stars, for instance? Consider this a bleg: I'm ignorant of the relevant military rules and even more ignorant of the relevant norms and traditions.

  9. The problem is he’s already stepped out of line once and been corrected for it

    No — the problem here is that, per the article, he drinks Bud Light Lime. That should be worth a court-martial as an insult to the the United States Army, and an egregious assault on the morale of the troops, many of whom drink actual adult beverages. How could he hold the confidence of his troops after this revelation?

  10. I have a rather different perspective on this: I was a career officer before going to law school, and I spent the better part of a decade as a commanding officer — under administrations I despised* — in the 1980s and early 90s.

    McChrystal and his staff had to go. An officer just doesn't violate Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, in front of reporters for a national magazine, as a flag officer or critical staff member for a flag officer, and continue in that assignment. And you don't just ask to be relieved of command: You resign your commission. That is the only ethical and legal response. Of course, they don't actually teach that at West Point, where MacArthur is still venerated, and the staff subtly undercuts his overweening political ambition and poor judgment. I don't just mean about China/Korea, but about his dubious suppression of early Depression-era demonstrations in DC.

    I think Obama had little choice but to accept the resignation, unless he wants a real MacArthur the next time. He also needs to quietly demand the resignations of McChrystal's chief of staff and several others who spoke to the reporters in this instance. And he also, I think, needs to have the service Secretaries do some serious house-cleaning at the academies; I heard almost identical language coming out of the mouths of freshly minted ringbanging lieutenants and ensigns (who had even less personal contact with the political figures in question) after the 1992 election. Since the staff for McChrystal would largely have consisted of officers with twelve to twenty years' service, that's precisely the cohort in question.

    I'm not excessively pleased about McChrystal's replacement… but that's for another time.

    * I was one of the tiny minority of officers who publicly believed that then-Lt Col North and then-VAdm Poindexter should have been court-martialled for lying to Congress.

  11. Ed Whitney,

    In 2008, in the Veep debate with Joe Biden, Sarah Palin mistakenly said the US commander in Afghanistan (a general McKiernan) was McLellan. Apparently, in 2010 the US commander in Afghanistan (a general McChrystal) came to the same conclusion.

    I wonder if they'll be running mates?

  12. C.E. Petit – loved your post. One of my favorite things about this site is when people with actual relevant experience speak up.

    As a civilian, I have mixed feelings about this, because if a military person (of any rank) somewhere sees something stupid about to happen, that will get people needlessly killed, I want them to blab! And to a journalist, if necessary. I gather there is some tradition that you're allowed to complain to your immediate superior, but only in advance of a decision? (Is this true?)

    But what if your immediate superior is an idiot?? Then what are you supposed to do? Can you go up the chain?

    Why didn't people resign before the Iraq war? Some of them must have known the whole thing was a mistake. The only one I remember with any cajones was Shinseki, and as I recall, he was asked a direct question anyhow.

    And I don't understand why the military is still so heavily Republican. One would think the penny would have dropped by now. What is it going to take?

  13. I keep thinking of the way Colin Powell dared Clinton to rein him in – in the very first months of 1992 – and Clinton blinked. Soon thereafter, you had US Senators making overt threats to the President's safety and the top brass smirked.

    I grew up in an Air Force family in the 1960s when the services were still bipartisan – that is, the officer corps had Democrats. Now it's 92% wingnuts. This institution needs taming and Obama was handed an opportunity. Thank god he took it.

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