To sack or not to sack

General McChrystal has mouthed off against the President and his officials.

Should Obama sack him?

Gen. McChrystal is under extraordinary pressure. He is conducting a war of armed nationbuilding in wildly difficult circumstances, against the clock, against the conditions, and against falling public support. This is an outburst in the middle of a very hard war and it is ultimately forgivable.

It is also reprehensible. He is under pressure, but that’s part of the job description. The remarks don’t go anywhere near Douglas MacArthur’s public rebellion during the Korean war. But they do display contempt for the civilian authority. Which is a breach of the basic principles of constitutional government and civil-military relations in the United States.

The timing is really bad too. American domestic politics is frayed and polarised, when America is overextended and its diplomatic mystique and leverage is weakened, when the President must justify and defend an unpopular war, and against a President who has tried to implement and support a counterinsurgency as far as US opinion will carry that freight.

As a side note, while I’m hardly an icon for inoffensive humor, publicly deriding a diplomatic event in France as ‘gay’ is just one more slap in the face to the gay men and women serving in the armed forces, who already endure slights and hostility in order to serve their country.

Here’s what Abu M has to say:

there are those who will argue that the principle of civilian control over the military is more important than whatever national interests we have in Afghanistan.

That’s where I would come down, not that the views of a minor academic and non-American outsider will be decisive in Washington.

First, I’ve already argued that America’s national interests are not vital or existential in Afghanistan. The notion that failure and withdrawal there results in a lethal staging post for Al Qaeda that we won’t be able to interrupt is mistaken, and based on a false view that there was a straight line between failed states, training camps and 9/11. There are many other points on the chain where we can, and have, made international terrorism seriously more difficult to pull off, including homeland security so that the basic failures that enabled 9/11 are now vastly less likely. And chaos and war in Afghanistan do not make the country a good sanctuary for AQ. What’s more, and folks obviously can disagree, we probably can’t achieve the objective of birthing a strong, non-corrupt democratic government in Afghanistan and even if we could, it would be absurdly expensive.

Second, and this is the most important point, isn’t it time to reject the argument that liberal crusades are more important than upholding constitutional principles? In the name of counter-terror, the US and its allies have injured core principles through torture, the creation of an imperial presidency with extraordinary executive powers, and the erosion of accountability. Does the US now say that civilian control is something it can compromise as well in a time of war? If they keep going down that route, what will be left to defend?

While this case isn’t quite as dramatic, we should oppose the notion that the cause of victory in a small war trumps one of the pillars of the American system of government. If this war is to defend democracy, then one part of the thing America is protecting is the legitimate authority of the people’s representatives to give orders without damaging public backchat.

If McChrystal is not fired, as someone argued, that does directly damage the principle of civilian control. What are we to say to more junior officers and subordinate commanders?

There are clearly other things that need attention within civil-military relations: we need the likes of Alan Brooke or Ulysses Grant who will give robust, often dissenting advice privately to elected leaders. McChrystal’s remarks are not constructive dissenting advice in an unequal dialogue, they are the broadsides of a frustrated General who momentarily lost his discipline and is about to have a distinctly non-funny meeting with the President. Its a tough call for anyone to make, but I think Obama should probably do the hard thing here.

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