The Night Beat: Obama Borrows the Military Back

More

Good evening.

THE PRESIDENT'S POINT
: Beginning in the early afternoon, a cadre of military and civilian soldiers loyal to Gen. Stanley McChrystal began to spread rumors throughout the capital city: that ground commanders in Afghanistan were threatening to resign ... that the CIA's chief of station in Kabul had stepped down ... that the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), William McRaven, was irate and wanted to step down ... that commanders of the "special mission units" like McRaven's former subordinates at DevGru (SEAL Team Six) would refuse taskings from the National Command Authority ... that buried secrets were about to be exposed, like who actually leaked the McChrystal Afghanistan review to Bob Woodward.

First, though a lot of officers who hitched their careers to McChrystal are indeed quite angry, no one has resigned, the CIA's station chief remains in place (though he's quite close to McChrystal) and McRaven isn't going anywhere. Second, it is meaningful and endearing that so many people are loyal to McChrystal. They revere the man. Third, such behavior, while in one context explicable, is precisely an argument in favor of President Obama's decision to remove McChrystal. The war is about more than one man. No deviations from the mission are acceptable. There is politics in war, and there are now numerous ways to complain; there is no question that after eight years doing God knows what in service to the country, frustrations had built up. But for those who talked to Rolling Stone, no matter how well-intentioned they were, no matter what they've done, their decision to open up to the magazine suggests that they had not learned, or had forgotten, the cardinal rule: your power is a trust that has been established by civilian politicians accountable to voters, and it is maintained by these politicians. No matter how well you've done, you will, at the end of the day, be held accountable to those who are held accountable to the republic itself.

It's also worth remembering what McChrystal is and was, according to the President, an American hero, someone who contributed immeasurably to our national security and who simply made a bad mistake. And McChrystal recognized his mistake. As Jake Tapper noted, it was McChrystal who made the argument to the White House that he had compromised the mission.

2010, 1862: So many false analogies. McChrystal was in no way this decade's Douglas MacArthur. And there are many ways in which Gen. Stanley McChrystal is not like Gen. George McClellan, famously sacked by President Lincoln in 1862. Where McClellan had, as Lincoln noted, "the slows," McChrystal, if anything, had the "fasts" -- was an effective battlefield commander, a soldier of first rank, and was never insubordinate. But McClellan, in his private letters, was contemptuous of his commander in chief, calling him a "gorilla": "What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!" The sad irony of the day is that McChrystal himself, initially skeptical about Obama, had grown to trust his commander in chief. But McChrystal's staff -- they were stuck in McClellan mode. And indeed, there may have been a reason for this: civilian control of the military means little when the civilians can't tell their knees from their elbows in Afghanistan.

More about McChrystal: Why was his nickname "The Pope?" The Pope is a nickname that special operations forces and their admirers bestow on the commander of JSOC because Janet Reno once complained about the futility of trying to pry information out of JSOC units. They were like the Vatican, she grumbled, to which people responded, "Hell yeah." Hence the name. People who served under mcChrystal when he was CJSOC still call him the Pope. The current Pope, by right, is McRaven. But he's just a weeny Navy guy, or so tease the Army guys, half seriously. One of the reasons the name stuck was because JSOC was unleashed by the Bush administration. McChrystal knows where the bodies are buried. I do not mean this metaphorically. He literally knows. He knows because he buried them.

Even more about McChrystal: now it can be told. The story about him voting for Obama is not contrived. He is a political liberal. He is a social liberal. He banned Fox News from the television sets in his headquarters. Yes, really. This puts to rest another false rumor: that McChrystal deliberately precipitated his firing because he wants to run for President.

An apt response to President Obama from the military side: your words, Mr. President, are well-taken, but please, please apply this standard to your civilians too. We all want to win the war. That means that the President needs to figure out the dysfunctions in the relationships among the senior civilians on the ground -- he needs a Ryan Crocker-like diplomat who has credibility with Hamid Karzai. Making these changes is on the President, not on Petraeus.

Who's going to replace Gen. Petraeus at CENTCOM?  I've learned enough to leave speculation to the oil companies. I don't know.

CORDESMAN ON THE CHANGE
: The Night Beat asked Anthony Cordesman, analyst extraordinaire from CSIS, about the day:

McChrystal's relief is a real tragedy in human terms. He led a change in U.S. strategy that focused on the Afghan, and not the enemy, for the first time. He pushed for, and got, the kind of resources that could actually support a victory. He developed a population-oriented approach to the war that integrated civil-military operations at the tactical level, created a sound base for expanded Afghan forces, improved the integrity and depth of intelligence and reporting, and helped make ISAF a much more effective campaign. The President had to make a hard decision, but fortunately Gen. Petraeus has worked closely with Gen. McChrystal at every level, is in a position to minimize any disruption in key efforts, and his acceptance of the job is a symbol of the fact that the administration and the U.S. are not planning to leave, but are rather sending an even more senior commander to win the war.

MOST IMPORTANT LINE IN OBAMA'S SPEECH: "

We are going to break the Taliban's momentum." (Stress: momentum). As first noticed by Chris Cillizza.

SELF-PARODY: This is how former Sen. Rick Santorum responded to the day's events via Twitter: "McChristal's firing is further proof with Obama it's always all about Obama.Could have been the bigger man, but just can't handle criticism."

BOOTHBY AND PETRAEUS: Was Duncan Boothby, the former journalist who set up the Rolling Stone interview, an integral part of the
strategic communications campaign to sell the "surge"? He was on staff, but Petraeus staff members insist that he did not play anything other than a small consulting role and had nothing to do with the attempt to "put over" Petraeus with the American people and the world.

BOTTOM LINE: At the intersection of politics and policy, here's a way to understand today's decision:
the President had no choice. Going back to the opening days of the Clinton presidency, Democrats have maintained an uneasy relationship with uniformed military officers and have tolerated the type of dissension and rank insubordination that would never be tolerated by a Republican White House. Clinton was rolled by Colin Powell on gays in the military and the Balkans, which, putting aside the policy merits of those decisions, was not right.  Indeed, one of the few good things Donald Rumsfeld did when he came in was to re-establish the principle of civilian control of the military, even if he took it too far by ignoring military advice in the lead-up to Iraq. Had Obama allowed McChrystal to stay in place, it would have sent the message to the military that such behavior was permissible and would have fatally undermined his authority and credibility as CINC. Again, McChrystal left him with no choice. Obama had to "borrow" his Army back.

BUSINESS BEAT: From Daniel Indiviglio of the Atlantic Business Channel:

Financial reform conference is scheduled to wrap up on Thursday. On the agenda is the ever-important and controversial derivatives provision. Democratic leadership, including Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, want it finalized this week so that President Obama can confidently present Congress's new regulations at the G-20 meeting this weekend. Republicans, however, aren't pleased, as they think the process is being rushed. The conference committee has pretty fluid rules, and Chairman Frank, in particular, has already used his power to deem certain amendments non-germane to the bill. Republicans especially want to propose reforms for the GSEs, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which are otherwise absent from the bill. It will be a tight finish, so look to see if they get it done on time. If they don't, Democrats say the bill won't be signed until after July 4th.

BRIEFLY:

-- President Medvedev of Russia used his trip to the United States to start Tweeting. Here is an official U.S. government translation of his first efforts: "Hello! I'm on Twitter and it moe6 first message! San Francisco - a very beautiful city. ... Now go to Silicon Valley, look Apple, Yandex, Cisco! ... That's the view from the window of my Hotel. [there was a picture attached.]"  That's kind of ... cute, right? He's in Washington tomorrow with POTUS.


-- The Atlantic's Nicole Allan takes note that an initiative to suspend California's cap-and-trade plan made it onto the November ballot on Tuesday. The ballot initiative is backed primarily by oil companies and is expected to attract $50 million or more. The opposition, however, includes Silicon Valley's biggest tech and venture capital names (Google, eBay, Bloom Energy) as well as Governor Schwarzenegger's team. They seem optimistic about battling the initiative despite the fact that they won't be able to match the oil companies in terms of funding. The upcoming showdown will be a kind of second front to the climate/energy war in Congress right now. A climate bill decision will likely affect the ballot initiative, and vice verse. 

Jump to comments
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In