Completing the Thought About McChrystal: Remember James Mattis

I have no idea what Barack Obama will do at tomorrow's meeting with Stanley McChrystal. On what I think he should do, see here.

But to complete a thought not addressed earlier: the strongest argument against Obama's firing McChrystal, or accepting his resignation, is that the American strategy in Afghanistan is inseparable from McChrystal the commander. Since Obama has gone all-out behind this strategy, he cannot afford to displace the general who was central to its design and execution.

First, the textbook point: if national strategy for a war rises or falls on one officer, that's a bad sign for the strategy. Banal point, but had to say it.

250px-James_N._Mattis.jpgBut the more useful corollary: as several military correspondents have observed today, there happens to be another widely respected warrior-commander who has first-hand experience in the CentCom area and is deeply steeped in the COIN strategy McChrystal has been trying to apply. This person is, of course, the four-star Marine Corps general James N. Mattis (Wikipedia photo at left). He was in the news last week for not being chosen as the next commandant of the Marine Corps. This could be serendipity, in making him available for other duty.

Relevant point when it comes to the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan: two years after the invasion of Iraq, Mattis was a leader, with David Petraeus, in the effort to develop a new military approach based on awareness of everything that had gone wrong in the invasion and its immediate aftermath. For accounts of that effort, see here and here. For the resulting Field Manual 3-24, the doctrinal Bible of COIN, you can get the 13MB PDF here.

Relevant point more generally: I have never met or interviewed Stanley McChrystal, but I have interviewed Mattis repeatedly over the years and have always been impressed by his intelligence and character. Tom Ricks testifies to that effect here. While he has made waves for his blunt-spokenness, it is hard for me to imagine him being as reckless as McChrystal has recently been.

Marc Ambinder says just now that Mattis is not likely to be interested in the job. (Spencer Ackerman on this theme, here.)  Moreover, there's an argument -- which I unfortunately believe -- that the job and the strategy are themselves doomed. Still, here's the point: If the argument against firing McChrystal is that he's the only man for the job, that's not good enough. There's at least one other four-star general perfectly well prepared.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her middle school. Then Humans of New York told her story to the Internet—and everything changed.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.


What Fifty Shades Left Out

A straightforward guide to BDSM

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In