On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero

Ed Ruggero, author most recently of The First Men In, helps organizations develop the kinds of leaders people want to follow. His Gettysburg Leadership Experience teaches battle-tested leadership lessons that endure today.

When Presidents and Generals Disagree

There are some rumblings in the media, the the blogosphere and around the water cooler about a rift between the president and the generals responsible for fighting the war in Afghanistan. I don't think that's what's happening; what's more, I believe that reducing the on-going strategy discussions to some simple rubric like, "It's Obama vs. McChrystal" can be dangerous. What we can see, if we look closely, is a lesson for leaders on developing strategy and educating their constituencies.

It's true that presidents and generals don't always see eye-to-eye, and this has been a problem when military leaders forget that the commander-in-chief determines the national goals. Abraham Lincoln spent more than three years reminding various generals that Robert E. Lee's army, and not the Confederate capital, was their principal objective. Lincoln was frustrated with a succession of Union commanders who trumpeted the "On to Richmond!" slogans popular in the press. During the Korean War Harry Truman had a very public break-up with the huge ego that was General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur argued that, since we were already fighting the Chinese in Korea, we should go after their supply lines and sanctuaries. But in the bigger picture Truman had to keep in mind as president, there was no room for a war with the Chinese and their Soviet backers. MacArthur criticized the administration in public and was fired.

Thankfully, neither General Stanley McChrystal nor his boss, General David Petraeus, is likely to take the MacArthur route. They clearly see their job is to provide the best possible counsel to the Commander-in-Chief. What that means in our system is that the president tells the general what he wants to have happen, and the general figures out how best to achieve that goal. Lincoln wanted to destroy the Confederacy's ability to sustain the rebellion; that meant destroying Lee's army in the east. Truman wanted to return the Korean peninsula to the status quo ante bellum; that meant pushing the North Koreans and their Chinese allies above the 38th Parallel without inciting a larger land war in Asia and possibly provoking Soviet aggression in Europe.

When General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan, his job was to come up with a plan to execute the mission as it existed at the time, which was to defeat the Taliban and thwart their efforts to undermine the Afghan government. McChrystal's report says, in effect, "Here are the best ways to accomplish that particular mission, Mr. President," and asked for the resources.

The question Obama must consider is not just, "Should I give McChrystal the extra troops?" Obama has to back up a few steps and re-evaluate the overall objectives, asking himself, "Is the mission McChrystal is pursuing the right mission?" It's up to Obama to determine our national objectives in Afghanistan and its troubled neighbor, Pakistan.

The point here is not that we should do A, B or C in Afghanistan; it's that part of the leader's job -- in this case, President Obama's job -- is to 1) continually re-evaluate the mission in light of changing goals and circumstances and 2) communicate openly with followers.

This administration has gone to great lengths to make the discussions with the top generals as transparent as possible. The White House has been taking pains to remind people that the war is not necessarily about the stability of Afghanistan or the longevity of its corrupt government, or even the eradication of the Taliban (who, by any measure, are the among the world's worst bad guys). The big question is about the security of the United States, and how instability elsewhere affects us at home. The issues are complex, which is why the administration is, in my opinion, taking the time to educate the public on the issues.

Obama might still get it wrong; in Afghanistan, there may be many more ways to fail than to succeed. But here's what's most interesting to me: Complex issues such as this make Americans more, not less, likely to reduce everything to simple and even simple-minded sound bites and catch-phrases.

Yet so far in this debate, the White House, the political opposition, the generals themselves and even the media have--for the most part--resisted the urge to "dumb down" this complex problem. The optimist in me thinks that if we can continue to engage in an intelligent national conversation about this important and complex issue, well, we might be catching just a glimpse of how our democracy is supposed to work.

By Ed Ruggero

 |  October 19, 2009; 5:43 AM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Unpleasant Necessity | Next: About On Leadership


Please report offensive comments below.

‘Intelligent national conversation about this important and complex issue (US mission in Afghanistan)’ may be giving Ed Ruggero a ‘glimpse of how a (US) democracy is supposed to work’, US administration goaded by American people who are tired of prolonged war, will most likely still reach a ’simple minded’ decision of making illusive peace with ’moderate(!) Taliban’. And within a year after such a ’peace deal’, Taliban would merrily take over Afghanistan and US will provide blackmail aid to such a Taliban government as a quid-pro-quo for preventing Al Qaeda attacks on US.

Posted by: simplesimon33 | October 19, 2009 3:31 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The clear problem with this decision is that it is being fought out in the media before it is ever made. Most likely, at least this time around, everyone in the command chain will be relatively comfortable with the decision once it is made. The reality is that the decision making structure with the military and the President is just like any other organizational tree. The actual actors and those with the detailed experience are at the leaves. Their understanding of the situation has to feed up the tree with each level integrating knowledge and making decisions at a more abstract level with a broader range of inputs and considerations. Several situations can cause big problems with this kind of structure. One is certainly when those up the tree fail to rely on the experience of those down the tree who really have it. Another is when someone down the tree does not respect his superiors and tries to go around them. Another is when a subordinate can't adjust to the way his/her tasks get shaped because of orgnizational concerns outside their area of responsibility. Yet another is when a subordinate gets asked to carry out a task they don't believe is achievable.
In this case, it is unfortunate that the views of someone several rungs down the command chain from the President have received so much coverage in the press while the decision is still in progress. On the good side, it is fortunate that the President has been interested in understanding McCrystal's views as part of the decision making process. Otherwise, we will have to see what happens when the decision gets made. It would be a mistake for the President to ask the military to adopt a strategy that they believe will fail. It would certainly be a mistake for the military to believe that it was their role to determine the strategy. It would be a mistake to keep McCrystal in his job if he can't carry out the strategy that is decided on. But, most likely there will be enough agreement between the President, those in the military command chain down to McCrystal, and McCrystal himself for them all to back the strategy once the President decides on it.

Posted by: dnjake | October 19, 2009 1:48 PM
Report Offensive Comment

jack29: "The comparison with Harry Truman is not appropriate. No one thought Truman needed t grow a pair."

Is that the "Missouri haberdasher", to whom you're referring?

Posted by: zenwick | October 19, 2009 1:00 PM
Report Offensive Comment

I think there are clear similarities between the relationship developing between McChrystal and Obama and the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Truman. We all know how Truman and MacArthur's difference of opinion on strategy was resolved. The question here is will President Obama learn from history? Will Obama bomb north of the Yalu?

Posted by: SUMB44 | October 19, 2009 11:53 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Come on Editor Ignats, you have the inside info. Elisabeth Bumiller on October 5,2009 had a New York Times piece captioned "Military Memo" lo and behold she quoted Dick Cheney's general in the act. Retired general good old boy Jack Keane.No doubt good old Jack is still in charge of Cheney's shadow army of generals.
Suggest you read again "The War Within"

Posted by: scac1 | October 19, 2009 11:29 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Come on Editor Ignats, you have the inside info. Elisabeth Bumiller on October 5,2009 had a New York Times piece captioned "Military Memo" lo and behold she quoted Dick Cheney's general in the act. Retired general good old boy Jack Keane.No doubt good old Jack is still in charge of Cheney's shadow army of generals.
Suggest you read again "The War Within"

Posted by: scac1 | October 19, 2009 11:26 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comparison with Harry Truman is not appropriate. No one thought Truman needed t grow a pair.

Posted by: jack29 | October 19, 2009 10:14 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Obama's biggest problem might be, trying to be please everyone, and offending one one. This is pragmatism stretched too far. Trying to be all things to all people, makes everyone upset. The US's strategy of nation-building, are legendary failures, from Korea, to Vietnam, to the current Iraq/AfPak conflicts. The trick is, knowing when to disengage, with the appearance of success.

Posted by: demtse | October 19, 2009 8:54 AM
Report Offensive Comment

McCrystal is a liability and he must go. He is a liar and a publicity seeker. He has increased the casualty rates in Afghanistan by denying troop protection and he is now asking for more troops to protect his behind. McCrystal must be summarily dismissed and we should plan an exit strategy.
Obama should wait for the final resolution of Afghanistan election results. Karzai should be put on a diet, if he is the eventual winner in the run-off. Karzai’s support comes from warlords and drug merchants. This is not the Government we should be supporting. We should keep a minimal present on the ground and remove all our young men from harms way. To hell with democracy and stability in Afghanistan.

Posted by: samelson1 | October 19, 2009 8:43 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The "dumbing down" was done by the news media (including the Washington Post).

From 2002 to 2008, the Bush administration abandoned our troops in Afghanistan with no leadership or strategy...and you folsk in the news media chose to NOT report on it (President Bush thanks you for your assistance).

Today, most Americans can't find Afghanistan on a map, very few (including most members of Congress) can spell the country's name, and most Americans don't even know why we're there.

SO I want to "thank" the news media for dumbing Americans down.

Now, back to the balloon boy hoax and a recap of the lastest Redskins loss, those are important stories.

Posted by: jjedif | October 19, 2009 8:24 AM
Report Offensive Comment

One reads this meager offering and wonders how such pablum can be published in the first instance; by the Post, no less, in the second instance. McChrystal is an admitted liar who dishonored a fallen soldier, and now he is to be praised for his candor? I suppose he has his supporters in Mr. Ruggero, but were I military defense counsel defending a witness for making a false official statement, McChrystal would be first on the witness list. It's far past time for Obama to take charge of this war, and either (and yes, this is not a difficult choice, call it "dumbed down" if you wish) remove all our troops or make the command decision to step on the snake's head with a military draft, better, bolder leadership, and general officers who NEVER lie.

Posted by: johngladsd | October 19, 2009 7:15 AM
Report Offensive Comment

chrystal whine, "no combat" military intelligence zealots, arm chair warrior pentagon bureaucrats, elite euro white trash nato cowards, tattooed police, an army of expensive social workers, poor afghan, and nicotene dependance disorder - stuff that retards decision making.

Posted by: therapy | October 19, 2009 6:42 AM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company