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Whether He Likes It or Not, Obama Must Command
Obama must set a course to produce victory in Afghanistan.


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Michael Barone

We didn’t need this. By “we,” I mean the large majority of citizens who want America to succeed in Afghanistan. By “this,” I mean the Rolling Stone article that quoted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides saying uncomplimentary things about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and other civilian officials.

It’s true that most of the negative remarks were attributed to staffers rather than to McChrystal himself. And it’s true that none of them amounts to insubordination or refusal to carry out orders, the offense for which Gens. George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur were appropriately fired.

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But a commander has the responsibility of setting the tone of his subordinates. And it is astonishing that a general would give such ready access to a writer from Rolling Stone, especially one who is, as the article makes clear, a skeptic about the general’s strategy.

Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman correctly noted that McChrystal’s comments “are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between the commander-in-chief and the military.” And that “the decision concerning Gen. McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the President of the United States.”

It surely must have been an excruciating decision for President Obama. He installed McChrystal in his post after removing his predecessor, and he largely agreed to his strategy last December after a three-month review — though he added a July 2011 deadline for the start of troop withdrawals.

Like most American presidents, and like all presidents during the last 50 years, Obama came to office with little preparation for being commander-in-chief.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and both Bushes had served in the military, but not at a level that gave them much insight in evaluating military commanders. Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and the younger Bush as governors commanded state National Guard units, but that’s nothing like commanding the world’s largest military forces.

Unfortunately, there’s not much correlation between the skill set needed to win the Iowa caucuses and the Super Tuesday primaries and that needed to decide on military strategies and to select the appropriate commanders for different military operations.

Obama’s decision-making on Afghanistan so far could be characterized as splitting the difference. He added troops early on and opted for McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy while propitiating his party’s left with something in the nature of a deadline for withdrawal.



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