We’ve defined insubordination down. When Douglas MacArthur was cashiered by President Truman in 1951, Secretary of Defense George Marshall explained to Congress that the dismissal resulted from “the wholly unprecedented position of a local theater commander publicly expressing his displeasure at and his disagreement with the foreign and military policy of the United States.” That puts Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s making a joke about Vice President Joe Biden in perspective.
There’s no doubt that McChrystal was out of line in his cringe-making Rolling Stone interview. It shows terrible media judgment ever to have agreed to a profile by a reporter for that magazine, let alone taken him out drinking with your staff. McChrystal has embarrassed himself, offended his civilian superiors and colleagues, and overstepped his bounds as a servant of the U.S. government. Obama would be justified in firing him.
But let’s be clear-eyed about what that would likely do to advance the cause of the war: little or nothing.
It wouldn’t change the fact that Afghanistan represents a hideously complex human and physical terrain for a war of this sort. Our long-telegraphed operation into Kandahar has been delayed because the decision about to what extent to work with or confront the malign powers that be in that crucial city is such a difficult and momentous one.
It wouldn’t change the fact that our diplomatic team is a disaster. The work of both Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke and ambassador Karl Eikenberry has been ham-handed and counterproductive. It’s understandable that General McChrystal would be frustrated with them, and it’s a scandal that they’ve been allowed to stumble along for this long.
It wouldn’t change the fact that the July 2011 deadline for the beginning of our withdrawal has undermined our credibility in the region. If Obama offered that deadline as a vague political sop to the Left, neither our foreign enemies nor our friends have taken it that way.
Perhaps the Obama-McChrystal relationship has been poisoned and can’t be recovered, in which case the general has to go. But we hope there’s a solution that would both demonstrate the general’s regret and reinforce the authority of the president without the disruption of yet another change of command in Afghanistan: perhaps McChrystal’s offering his resignation (which is already being reported), and Obama’s generously rejecting it in the larger cause of winning the war.
Whatever McChrystal’s fate, the president will have to clean up his diplomatic team, tame his vice president and political advisers who are hostile to the strategy in Afghanistan (and have a handy stenographer in Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter), and walk back his July 2011 deadline. Above all, we’ll need patience. We are in for a long, difficult slog in Afghanistan, with or without Stan McChrystal.