After I mentioned last night that I disagreed with Robert Kaplan's call for an immediate commitment of more US troops in Afghanistan, I received a note that reminded me of a point I had meant to make. It concerns the chain of command and the different responsibilities of a theater commander (like Gen. McChrystal, in Afghanistan) and the commander in chief (like Pres. Obama, in Washington). I raise the point not to drag out a disagreement with a friend and colleague but to clarify an elementary but sometimes muddied issue.
My correspondent, a veteran of the defense and technology businesses, notes these lines from Kaplan's piece:
"The position Obama's now in is similar to that of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld some years back--appearing not to be listening to his generals. If the president doesn't agree with his field commander, that's fine. Just don't make a public spectacle of it."
And says that this misconstrues the way the disagreement came to light:
"...since it was the leaks (from wherever -- I suspect [name redacted!] to Bob Woodward that publicly highlighted McChrystal's disagreements with the President. Only in the face of continued leaks about how "long" McChrystal's report had sat on the President's desk sans action did the President's team (NSA Jim Jones, CJCS Mullen) finally proceed to remind -- and quite obliquely -- those in uniform that disagreements with the Commander in Chief should be expressed privately, not aired publicly.
I think that's right as a matter of fact. And as a matter of policy, the point I meant to make is that a president should of course listen to his generals on questions of military operations, trade-offs, resources, etc. But it's worth remembering from Civics 101 that they must listen to him on questions of larger national interest and strategy.