Dissension in the ranks
Q: In confronting the issue of Gen. McChrystal's apparent insubordination, did President Obama have any choice but to remove him? Going forward, what can Gen. Petraeus do to overcome this dramatic shakeup and keep his troops reassured and on mission?
The decision was justified. President Obama had no choice but to accept General McChrystal's resignation. American authority in the world is partly a function of the discipline of the military, and McChrystal damaged this authority by making derogatory remarks about the president and other administration officials in front of a reporter. On top of that, the general apparently encouraged an atmosphere among his own subordinates in which mockery of the administration and our allies was common. This kind of egotistical, misguided approach is disrespectful not only to the commander in chief but also to the soldiers putting their lives on the line in service to the mission in Afghanistan.
But just as the commander in chief deserves the respect of the military, he must also shoulder the responsibility when the mission goes awry. President Obama has put this foreign-policy and war-strategy team together, and he should be blamed for its current disarray. The New York Times reported this week that backbiting and second-guessing seem rampant among the president's top advisers. As president, as leader of this organization, he needs to lay out a mission and a strategy in such a clear and forceful way as to let his people know exactly what they need to do - and to let them know that he won't tolerate selfish behavior that distracts from the important work at hand.
One of the key tasks for General Petraeus will be to help define the U.S. role, to help paint a picture of what success will look like, and to provide some of the sense of order and commitment that he brought to his work in Iraq. As a smart and proven leader, General Petraeus no doubt understands that he needs to do a lot of communicating - with President Obama, with our troops, with our allies, and with President Karzai. He must give a strong indication to Karzai about the meaning of loyalty; namely that flirting with the Taliban is no way to repay us for our support in American treasure and lives. Petraeus is someone who understands loyalty and chain of command. He was properly respectful when George Bush was president, and he maintained that demeanor when Barack Obama became commander in chief.
It was an appropriate lesson that President Obama provided in the Rose Garden yesterday, reminding us - perhaps reminding the military most of all - that our system has endured precisely because civilians control the military. The president calls the shots, but the president also needs to articulate the mission, and to date President Obama hasn't done that.
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