The President and the General

It is typical of the spin era that the first serious “crisis” in relations between General McChrystal and President Obama occurs over a few disobliging words the General and his team spoke about the President and his team. The endless rounds of deaths and dangerous patrols, the delays in finding political settlements on the ground and the ubiquitous ability of the “insurgents” to reappear are not apparently worthy reasons to recall the General for talks, but a magazine article is.

I have always doubted the General’s judgement, as I have feared he is too optimistic. I of course understand his need to be optimstic to rally the troops and keep up belief in the mission. Now many will wonder why he felt the need to open up his operation to such press investigation, and having done so why he allowed such careless talk. Good military performance requires levels of discipline not needed on civvy street.

Now we will see the mettle of the President. Is ill judged gossip in a magazine reason to remove the Commander he told us all to believe in? Will he show wisdom, and use this opportuntiy to review with his General how long this mission is going to take, what winning would look like, and how many more Coalition deaths are likely as a result? Wouldn’t that be a more important conversation than an interview about the words of a magazine journalist?

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24 Comments

  1. Kevin Peat
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Obama promised McChrystal 30,000 more troops on the condition that they start withdrawal by May 2011. Highly decorated and experienced war General McChrystal said that the position he had been handed was 'unsellable'.

    The reason why the war in Afganistan is lost is because the Afghans have always known that the coalition force's presence is temporary and limited. Our leaders know that this is a lost cause too and their efforts have been half-hearted – perhaps we should be asking when we shall see the mettle of our own 'President'. Not a single life nor a single limb should be sacrificed by our troops in furtherence of political face-saving. And to those who exhort that more must die as to pull out now would mean that previous sacrifices have been in vain: you are as mistaken as a losing gambler who keeps returning to the poker table to make good his losses.

    Bring our troops home as soon as humanly possible. If a fight must be fought then let them fight dirty and fight clever.

  2. Mark
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Don't you get the feeling he has confused McChrystal (who better avoid all R&R) with Hayward?

  3. sinosimon
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    but of course president zero is more exercised by comment than reality. having been projected into the whitehouse on a messianic froth he really thinks that headlines matter more than the underlying reality….because his whole campaign proved to him that they do!

    So his first temptation is always to look at changing the headline rather than improving the situation. We suffered thireteen years of this 'media grid' government…in the face of the worst economic crisis in a century, and a war looking increasingly unwinnable, the american people closed their eyes, crossed their fingers, and voted for a vapid media obsessed demagogue….and we will all live to regret it.

  4. Peter
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    It’s ironic that Obama’s intervention has drawn attention to the Rolling Stones article

  5. SJB
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Contributors may be interested to know that the House of Commons Library has today published a research paper on Afghanistan. http://www.parliament.uk/briefingpapers/commons/l

  6. Alan Jutson
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Looks like Obama has had his honeymoon given that his ratings appear now to be very low.

    Obama now picking easy targets to have a go at to try and deflect some of the poor press, hence the attack on BP who have not helped their own cause.

    I agree the tactics and policy when at war, are far more important than personal popularity. Perhaps the General will be able to get his point across, but I suspect he is for the scrap heap, if now now then in a few months time.

  7. JohnRS
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    John

    There's an interesting take on the situation here:
    http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2010/06/quote-to

    It's entirely possible that the army are able to use the whole spin culture just as effectively as Obama and are positioning themselves to avoid blame should the outcome of the surge not be what was forecast.

  8. Antisthenes
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    There is never smoke without fire and these ill judged remarks although unfortunate point to the possibility that Obama and his administration have serious flaws. I have long suspected such, the fact that Obama is left leaning politically sounds alarm bells. As history and our own experience tells us that left wing politicians are generally incompetent and control freaks with large chips on their shoulders. We have seen one such off, Gordon Brown, hopefully Obama will be seen off at the next election. It is a pity it cannot be sooner.

  9. Paul Round
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    The moment the Obama administration announced, for political reasons, that they intended to begin troop withdrawals in May 2011, the campaign was lost.General McChrystal was handed a poisoned brief to achieve the impossible and the White House and its staff were interested only in managing the politics of image.No wonder McChrystal and his staff are disillusioned and angry.We see Obama for what he is: a self-seeking politician who is completely hollow and without principles, as also illustrated by the BP affair.

    I hope the General rtesigns and runs for the 2012 Presidential ticket.If he could persuade Condoleeza Rice to join him, they would be unstoppable and the Western World would once again have proper and principled leadership

  10. Cliff.
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I would be more inclined to take notice of an experienced general rather than a second rate president who, in my opinion, only got where he is because the media thought it would be nice to have a black president rather than one, of any colour, who could do the job.

    I worry about Mr Obama; I wonder what message is sent out when the president uses phrases such as I want to know whose ass to kick and I want to keep my boot on the throat of BP; These are hardly presidential comments but more like a small time gangster or thug.

    For me, I think it is good to see a general with the guts to speak out before he is safely retired however, perhaps he should have gone through more appropriate channels rather than a mah nah mah nah magazine.

  11. PJR
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I think each one of these comments (as well as John's article) misses the point.  This issue is not about  failures of the military strategy, or Obama's concerns regarding the political fallout from the article.
     
    Unlike our Prime Minister or Secretary of State for Defence, the Preseident of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.  As the Commander-in-Chief there is a direct chain of command from the President through General McChrystal and down to his soldiers on front-line operations.  The chain of command requires loyalty upwards and downwards: defending the decisions of your superiors to those under your command and, when appropriate, speaking up for those under your command to your superiors.  For McChrystal to be openly disloyal about his superior officer is a failure of military discipline and should be treated as such.  Failure to discipline McChrystal for his actions sends the wrong message to the troops about loyalty to the chain of command and will subsequently lead to much greater disciplinary problems.
     
    Strict discipline keeps a unit together and is crucial to successful military operations.  This system may well appear alien to political and civilian commentators, but it has worked for centuries and must be maintained.
     
    ed Forces.  As the Commander-in-Chief there is a direct chain of command from the President through General McChrystal and down to his soldiers on front-line operations.  The chain of command requires loyalty upwards and downwards: defending the decisions of your superiors to those under your command and, when appropriate, speaking up for those under your command to your superiors.  For McChrystal to be openly disloyal about his superior officer is a failure of military discipline and should be treated as such.  Failure to discipline McChrystal for his actions sends the wrong message to the troops about loyalty to the chain of command and will subsequently lead to much greater disciplinary problems.
     
    Strict discipline keeps a unit together and is crucial to successful military operations.  This system may well appear alien to political and civilian commentators, but it has worked for centuries and must be maintained.
     

  12. Bill
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Almost nine years have elapsed since the start of this conflict and no end is in sight.
    The US forces are going to replace the Canadian’s and Dutch forces soon.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more indigenous Al Qaeda “players” here in the UK, than there are threatening these shores from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Are we fighting the Taliban or Al Qaeda there? Do the Taliban aspire to attack the west or are they just the shell and Al Qaeda the hermit crab?

    I think the whole venture needs a complete root and branch appraisal.

  13. Posted June 23, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    As with Robert McNamara and President Johnson (as well as the uselss Richard Nixon and his group) there is no plan to WIN THE WAR in Washington D.C. (or in London).

    "Victory" does not enter the mental universe of these people – they think in terms of a "political settlement" (or whatever) and that can only mean LOSING THE WAR – total DEFEAT.

    For years people begged General Westmoreland to go public with what he know about Washington's lack of any plan (or even desire) to WIN in Vietnam – but he refused to speak publically what he often said privately.

    To refuse to speak out is not "loyal" – it is to betray the men who are fighting and dying under your command. My guess is that Stanley McC will (out of a misguided sense of loyality to the Commander in Chief) give in. But what he should do is go public and campaign for either a real plan for VICTORY or to GET THE TROOPS OUT.

    There is no point in being killed in a "management operation" – something that can only lead to the victory of the Taliban.

  14. Acorn
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    I posted some while ago, my conversation with a US taxi driver. "… do you think the US is going to elect a president who's middle name is Hussein", she said. That taxi driver was a "hockey mom", (middle class suburban woman with a family that matters most in her life). Driving a taxi while the kids were at school. In the UK, we have not realised how socialist the US has become. Perhaps like the boiling frog, we didn't notice how socialist we had become. The US was once a federation of States. Nowadays, the States of the Union, have the status of Counties in England. The federal government has just become too big; just like the UK. And, like the EU, the States have the problem of having a single currency. The likes of California, have massive budget problems (public sector trade unions again); can't devalue its currency; can't alter its interest rates; while having an economy bigger than Canada. The UK may have a way back from socialism at the moment; there is no sign of the US having a similar way out. So, don't worry about General McChrystal. If he gets the push, expect him to turn up as a Senate candidate; or, a Presidential candidate.

  15. Stuart Fairney
    Posted June 23, 2010 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Obama is looking more and more out of his depth by the day. The man is being all too precious over a few silly remarks in a magazine article. Troops deaths while he dithered mattered not at all, but say something a bit rude about the Prez and you are fired??

    No. Poor, very poor.

    Now I agree you can't ignore it, but just issue a statement saying you support the troops and the mission is the most important thing, storm in a teacup etc

    As it is, he just looks a fool

    Now if Petraeus has half a brain he can do exactly what he wants to do bar nothing and Obama can't do a thing about it. You can't lose two C-in-C's in a week. Another reason why Obama should not have fired McChrystal.

    And then of course the guys being shot at might just think their Prez is acting like a big girl.

    Foolish and ill-advised. The action of an amateur.

  16. Posted June 24, 2010 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    President Lincoln had enormous trouble with his generals during the Civil War. In the second World War, Patten, perhaps the greatest General of the war, war ruined by the press.
    Obama is the first black President. He is iconic. He speaks very well and looks the part. He won the election on a wave of euphoria.
    When I had to teach American Black History to West Africans, I am afraid we ended up scraping the barrel – Marcus Garvey, for heaven's sake! Nowadays we have St Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere and President Obama. (Let's forget Kwame Nkrumah, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe, shall we?)
    So what this chippy, machine politician from Chicago does actually matters a lot.

  17. DBC Reed
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Spot on.Why is John Redwood so right about foreign and defence policy and so wrong about the mixed economy?

  18. Posted June 24, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I was impressed with Obama when he became president, now I am disappointed in him. As with the BP crisis where he did not get all the facts right, he has made mistakes with this situation. It is really difficult if you have people who speak out and you dont like what you hear, however that does happen to us all at times. I do feel that he is trying to surpress these comments albeit discipline needs to be maintained there must be a better way than to publically do it.

  19. michael read
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    It would be a good idea, indeed it should be mandatory, to read the article in Rolling Stone.

    It challenges the whole idea of the war on terror.

    McChrystal's remarks are wholly inconsequential and anodyne in terms of that wider issue.

  20. gordon-bennett
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    My understanding is that our soldiers are in Afghanistan to prevent the occurrence of another terrorist incident such as the Tube bombing, which killed 57 people.

    We have lost 300 soldiers which is the equivalent of 5 or 6 similar terrorist incidents.

    How many terrorist incidents have been prevented by our Armed Forces being in Afghanistan?

  21. Sybil
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    When will we ever learn. Once again we are involved in fighting another religion and our island which was given natural defence against infection and the hand of war is now invaded by too many people. Amongst other concerns is the tropical diseases that will surely break out. I wonder how many infections are now inhabiting our infectious disease hospitals. Please bring our young men home. We need a strong leader to stop us heading for disaster, there must be one somewhere who will pull up the drawbridge.

  22. Andrew Johnson
    Posted June 24, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    President Obama is week by week revealing himself to be a very small minded unstatesman like and indecisive President. Time for for our British forces to come home.

  23. grahams
    Posted June 25, 2010 at 12:59 am | Permalink

    Your test of the President's wisdom was a good one and it is sad for America and its allies that he seems to have failed it. It is trite but true that our contribution to these wars was covered by tax revenue from BP. The President should perhaps be told that in the absence of these revenues we can no longer realistically afford to continue. Otherwise, "we the people" should be told what alternative further cuts in public services will be necessitated by the loss of BP revenues resulting from the rig explosion, which seem likely to be greater than any rise in CGT revenue.

    • Andrew Johnson
      Posted June 25, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Agree completely!

  • About John Redwood

    John Redwood has been the Member of Parliament for Wokingham since 1987. First attending Kent College, Canterbury, he graduated from Magdalen College, and has a DPhil from All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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