As General Stanley McChrystal wings his way back to the US and face time with an angry Barack Obama, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl writes a convincing argument that Obama will be angry at the wrong man. McChrystal should never have allowed those disparaging remarks to be repeated in the presence of a Rolling Stone reporter, but McChrystal’s team is hardly the first to leak opposition to official White House policy on the war. Obama’s lack of action on earlier and obvious sniping through the media showed a lack of leadership that allowed the environment for such nonsense to continue taking place (via Rich Lowry at The Corner):
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal should not lose his job because of the article about him in Rolling Stone magazine. If anyone deserves blame for the latest airing of the administration’s internal feuds over Afghanistan, it is President Obama.
For months Obama has tolerated deep divisions between his military and civilian aides over how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy he announced last December. The divide has made it practically impossible to fashion a coherent politico-military plan, led to frequent disputes over tactics and contributed to a sharp deterioration in the administration’s relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. …
Nor is McChrystal the only participant in the feuding who has gone public with his argument. A scathing memo by Eikenberry describing Karzai as an unreliable partner was leaked to the press last fall. At a White House press briefing during Karzai’s visit to Washington last month, the ambassador pointedly refused to endorse the Afghan leader he must work with.
Biden, for his part, gave an interview to Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter in which he said that in July of next year “you are going to see a whole lot of [U.S. troops] moving out.” Yet as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates tartly pointed out over the weekend, “that absolutely has not been decided.” Instead, Biden was pushing his personal version of the strategy Obama approved, which calls for the beginning of withdrawals next year, with the size and pace to be determined by conditions at that time.
The real trouble is that Obama never resolved the dispute within his administration over Afghanistan strategy.
That’s one part of the problem. Another part is that Obama failed to sanction those who went to the media to fight out the dispute. Neither Biden nor Gates got a dressing-down like McChrystal will get, even though both owe some loyalty to the man in the Oval Office. Biden would have remained a daffy, gaffe-prone backbencher in the Senate had it not been for Obama’s inexplicable decision to choose Biden as a running mate.
Eikenberry is an even more direct example. His memo ripping Hamid Karzai nearly drove the NATO-backed government in Kabul into the arms of the Taliban, and would have if Karzai thought they’d let him live long enough to enjoy his revenge. His insubordination on Karzai exposed the disarray within the White House on Afghanistan. His antipathy towards McChrystal has also been well known for months. Yet Obama allowed Eikenberry to remain in place despite nearly costing the US its position in Afghanistan, and Eikenberry is still in place to this day.
Under those circumstances, it’s not much wonder that McChrystal opted to fight the disputes through the media, too. That doesn’t excuse the disrespect, nor should McChrystal go unreprimanded for this incident and the obvious disrespect for the chain of command that he either tolerates or encourages, as seen in the article. Whether or not McChrystal should get cashiered is a secondary issue to Diehl’s point, however. Had Obama shown more command and demanded more discipline from his national-security and diplomatic team, McChrystal may never have opted to follow suit.
Obama needs to get more engaged and start kicking some ass where it counts. He can start with McChrystal, but until he starts acting like an actual Commander in Chief with his own team, McChrystal isn’t the real problem.