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06.22.10

McChrystal Must Go

The general’s poormouthing of Obama’s national security team is insubordination. Foreign Affairs editor James Hoge on why he must be fired—and how Obama is in danger of becoming a wuss.

The U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has a way with words, a way that should put his head on the chopping block when he personally appears at the White House Wednesday on orders from a "furious" president. In the current issue of Rolling Stone, McChrystal and his aides diss the president, the vice president, the national security advisor, the U.S. ambassador and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. In short, McChrystal and buddies accused the civilian leadership of screwing up Afghan policy. If that were not enough rope to hang himself, McChrystal has issued an "apology for poor judgment" but no retraction, no claim of being misquoted or having his derogatory comments taken out of context. Now one might explain away the insubordination as standard trash talk among stressed-out warriors. But the McChrystal cadre confirmed their damning remarks to Rolling Stone fact checkers in the two weeks prior to publication. Apparently, McChrystal made no effort to head off or amend the story.

If Obama is to have any chance of succeeding in winding down the U.S.military engagement with some semblance of accomplishment and honor, he must end the policy divisions within his administration and the insubordination of military leadership on the ground.

This is not the first time that McChrystal has disregarded the chain of command, which is a bureaucratic way of saying that his propensity for speaking out of turn has violated the cardinal principle of civilian control of the military. But it should be the last time. Despite his impressive military achievements, McChrystal must be sacked by President Obama. The principle is a hallowed underpinning of democracy as President Truman recognized when he fired General MacArthur in the midst of the Korean War.

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There is another reason that calls for toughness from Obama. As a person, he remains popular with many publics around the world. But with leaders of both allies and adversaries, a different story is developing. On recent travels abroad, I heard "disappointment" from allies and "he can be had" from adversaries in judging his leadership.

A lack of confidence in Obama at home and abroad compounds the difficulties that are mounting in Afghanistan. The full complement of 30,000 extra troops will be operational by September. They have to show successes on the battlefield before the December review ordered by the president. Currently, the tide is running out. Without improved prospects, the Obama team risks a collapse of public and congressional support and of continuing assistance from coalition partners.

Before the September surge even begins, Taliban forces are acting to short circuit the much-touted campaign. Bombings, ambushes of U.S. troops, assassinations of Afghan officials are undermining what confidence residents of southern Afghanistan might have in U.S. stabilizing efforts. Just as McChrystal was apologizing, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was landing in Mariah, a supposedly pacified southern command center of the Taliban. His helicopter was greeted by hostile gunfire and a bomb explosion.

If Obama is to have any chance of succeeding in winding down the U.S. military engagement with some semblance of accomplishment and honor, he must end the policy divisions within his administration and the insubordination of military leadership on the ground. These efforts must start with a decisive heave-ho of General McChrystal. Anything less will reinforce the emerging calculation that Obama is a wuss.

James Hoge is editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, and Peter G. Peterson Chair at the Council on Foreign Relations.