Editorial: No military general is indispensable
If Harry Truman could fire a legend in Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then how hard can it be for Barack Obama to can blowhard Gen. Stanley McChrystal, this nation's top commander in Afghanistan?
McChrystal may have that coming after trashing the White House in an upcoming Rolling Stone magazine interview, where he is quoted as calling National Security Adviser James Jones a "clown"; describing in derisive terms Vice President Joe Biden, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke; and critiquing Obama as "uncomfortable and intimidated," ill-prepared to take on the war in Afghanistan. The article comes under the apt headline, "The Runaway General."
To say this is a lapse in judgment ... well, McChrystal has since said so himself, as has Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It certainly fails the common sense test. Many an employee may think his boss is an idiot, but it's generally unwise -and bad for job security - to take a bullhorn out to the street corner and announce it to the world. Would McChrystal himself put up with any soldier who routinely dressed down him or any superior officer in front of the platoon?
And it's not the first time. Back in the fall of 2009, when the White House was seeking input and contemplating what to do in Afghanistan, McChrystal wasn't content with providing his advice behind closed doors and took his case public, saying the country would become "Chaos-istan" if he didn't get the troop build-up he wanted. That earned him a rebuke from Gates then, too, among others.
Yet we cut him some slack because the last thing any president needs is nothing but "yes" men sitting around the table with him. We remembered all too well the situation involving Gen. Eric Shinseki, effectively relieved of his duties in Iraq - forced to retire - by the Bush administration when he departed from the White House script during congressional testimony in 2003. The difference is that Shinseki was under oath, responding to questions. McChrystal was not with the Rolling Stone reporter.
As a result, McChrystal has been called to Washington to explain himself. Certainly he has given the president an excuse to cut him loose, with Obama reportedly being furious enough to do just that. If the latter needs any inspiration, he need look no further than fellow Illinois boy Abe Lincoln, who dumped Gen. George McClellan, another guy who thought he was smarter than the boss, and without necessarily proving it on the battlefield.
Look on the bright side: McChrystal can become a hero on the right - some of whom would never tolerate such near-insubordination in their businesses - he can go on Rush's radio show, write a book, hit the public lecture circuit touting himself as the man who spoke truth to power, and make some real money. Obama might be doing him a favor.
McChrystal may not like it, but the U.S. Constitution clearly spells out who the commander in chief is, and it's not him. If he does save his job, it likely will be because the timing of any change in Afghanistan is so bad, with the surge at a critical stage, casualties up, current strategy being questioned, a crazy Karzai government to deal with, and the training of Afghan security forces lagging. This would be the second change in command there in just 13 months. He has apologized profusely.
And yet arguably the U.S. military has many capable people. Obama should not let emotion get the best of him here; McChrystal is doing a good job, or he isn't, and that's really the only consideration, though clearly this contempt for civilian authority, which can filter down to the troops, cannot continue. Gen. David Petraeus heads up United States Central Command; given his impressive track record, he may have something to say, and the White House should listen to him.
In the meantime, stay or go, McChrystal should pick up the poem "Indispensable Man" by Saxon White Kessinger, and commit it to memory:
Sometime when you're feeling important;
Sometime when your ego's in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You're the best qualified in the room,
Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that's remaining
Is a measure of how much you'll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop, and you'll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example
Is to do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There's no indispensable man.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.