On the chain of command

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.

The complaint about Rumsfeld was that he ignored -- in cases like Eric Shinseki's, stifled -- military professionals who warned how hard it would be and how many troops it would take to complete the mission the Bush administration had decided on. Their argument was: if you're going to do this, do it right. That is exactly the kind of advice military professionals are expected to give their civilian commanders. It's what Bush, Rumsfeld, et al should have listened to. (Apart, of course, from listening to a wider range of views about launching the invasion at all.)

That is a different kind of listening from what is emerging with Gen. McChrystal. Whether or not this was his intention, his quoted advice comes across less as, "If you're going to do X, then do it right" than as, "You should do X..." Figuring out what it would take to protect Afghan citizens and win a counterinsurgency effort is the general's job. Figuring out whether that is worth doing is the president's. Again, an obvious point but worth restating.

One comeback would be: Obama's already made up his mind! He said that Afghanistan was the "necessary war," and if he is committed to the end then he is committed to the means. To call his original choice into question would waste time and look weak. As Bob Kaplan put it, "the time to roll out a new or adjusted strategy would have been when McChrystal's selection was announced, so that he could become the face of the new policy."

This is where we disagree. I think the time to adjust the strategy is as new evidence comes in and until you've done something irreversible -- and that in these war-and-peace matters it is better to be inconsistent than wrong. That is why I think a thorough reconsideration is just what the Administration should be doing right now. I start out believing that the less-bad option is to curtail rather than expand America's commitment in Afghanistan -- all options being bad because of the fateful mistake of switching attention to Iraq eight years ago. But I'll listen to a case for expansion differently if I think it comes from an open assessment of all possibilities, rather than because it's too late to change course or risk losing face.

Last on this theme: the same reader offered this link to another valuable "be careful what you're getting into" analysis of Afghanistan, from Survival magazine. I agree with Andrew Sullivan's current examinations of this difficult choice, here and here. And, having watched the Frontline "Obama's War" broadcast last night, I share the widespread endorsement of it. Can be viewed online here.