Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Plug his hole

Obama and the principle of civilian control of the military

Plug his hole

 

 

President Obama dumped Gen. Stanley McChrystal late this morning (in official parlance, he "accepted McChrystal's resignation") - and rightly so. This post was written a few hours before the news was announced. Also, I am told that a "systems-related problem" has apparently hindered the ability of readers to post comments today. The repairmen will go for the fix early tomorrow.

 

When President Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant to lead the Union Army during the Civil War, he sternly informed the general: "You are not to decide, discuss or confer with anyone or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions."

Translation: Just shut up and do your job. Lincoln was essentially reminding Grant that, under the terms of American democracy, the civilians run the military. And Grant got with the program.

Nearly a century later, Harry Truman was compelled to serve up his own reminder when General Douglas MacArthur was publicly defying the White House with his grandiloquent campaign for a wider (and potentially A-bomb) war in the Korean peninsula. Truman, a far less popular figure than his media-savvy nemesis, had no choice but to relieve MacArthur of his Far East command, if only to reassert the fundamental principle of civilian supremacy over the military. Had Truman failed to fire MacArthur, the principle would have been dead.

Now comes U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, our commander in Afghanistan. Having just trash-talked the civilian commander-in-chief and the civilian veep in the pages of Rolling Stone, and (at Rolling Stone's invitation) having vetted the snarky, insubordinate quotes attributed to his senior aides, the guy's status appears to be crystal clear: He is toast. Or he should be, anyway.

The fact that he and his senior officers are ticked off at the White House is irrelevant. They apparently perceive Obama (and especially Joe Biden) as being insufficiently committed to a Afghanistan victory strategy, and perhaps they are right. But, as many military vets have pointed out during the past 24 hours, the McChrystal team's frustrations can't possibly justify such flagrant acts of insubordination.

The Uniform Code of Military Justice states that officers shall not treat their superiors "with contempt." They are barred from "being disrespectful in language or deportment." It's all about enforcing discipline in the ranks; if top officers publicly disrespect the people above them, the whole system risks breaking down.

As the conservative commentator Joel Rosenberg said this morning, Team McChrystal's insubordination "must be dealt with firmly...as a message to others that civilians run the military, not the other way around, and generals must show the president and his team respect in public and private. The president, therefore, should immediately accept the resignation of the general and his top staff...Losing them will be a terrible blow to an already difficult war, and on the eve of a major offensive planned in Kandahar. But it must be done."

Indeed, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs hinted strongly yesterday that it will be done: "Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person." Obama has little choice but to fire the guy - and it's not just a matter of principle. It's also a virtual necessity for political reasons. If Obama gives a pass to a senior general who disses him in public, he looks weak and sends the message that there is no price to be paid for crossing him.

Obama already is bedeviled by one video spillcam; there isn't much he can do about the gush in the Gulf. But McChrystal, he can do something about. He should plug the hole.

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The sole proprietor of this blog is on the road for the month of June. Virtually all June posts will be briefer than the norm, except on the rare weekdays when posts won't show up at all. Apologies in advance for this disturbance in the force. The standard verbosity will return next Monday.

 

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

Dick Polman Inquirer National Political Columnist
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