The Night Beat: Obama Borrows the Military Back

Good evening.

: 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.

: 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.


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

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.

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