The President did what he had to do: He fired Gen. McChrystal. Conservatives were ready to pounce at the President’s removal of a commanding officer from the line of battle. But, then the President pulled a Petraeus out of the hat and all the conservative angst went away. Sen. John McCain was the first to praise the selection but soon virtually everyone was on-board.
Virtually everyone. Mr. Limbaugh, of course, was not appeased by the choice and falsely charged that then-Senator Obama had failed to criticize MoveOn.org when it ran an especially stupid and juvenile ad that played on the general’s name; the ad was entitled “Betray Us.” Obama did, in fact, criticize MoveOn.org for the ad. I have little regard for MoveOn.org. They are to the left what the Tea Party is to the right. But, here is the difference. For weeks now, Chris Matthews has issued an open challenge to any Republican willing to come on his show and denounce just one of the many outrageous comments that spew forth from Mr. Limbaugh. We are still waiting. Obama criticized MoveOn.org. Is there not one honorable member of the GOP willing to challenge the radio showman?
Not to be outdone, Sean Hannity had Ann Coulter as his guest to discuss the dismissal of McChrystal. Her theme was that President Obama is “thin-skinned” or, this being Fox, “the most thin-skinned President in American history.” Had Ms. Coulter taken the time to actually read the offending article, she would realize that it was not so much the President as his Vice-President and his staff that earned the brunt of derision from McChrystal’s staff. (Indeed, the strangest thing about the entire episode is that Obama gave McChrystal everything he asked for and had to stare down his own party to do it.) But, Coulter, who is sharp without being bright, reducing the entire episode to personalities is easier than examining the principles at stake. In her incessant need to turn all political opponents into a caricature, she has herself become a caricature, one that famously needs taming.
To be sure, personalities matter in a war as in politics. When the President said that Gen. McChrystal showed “poor judgment” in letting himself and his staff loose, while tipsy, in a Paris restaurant with a reporter, he was saying something very important. Judgment is one of the most necessary of personal attributes in a commander. Intelligence, training, courage are all necessary too but without judgment these other attributes are not going to be used well. It is one of the marks of President Obama’s fitness for the office he holds that it is inconceivable that he would get caught out talking trash about his generals in front of a reporter.
More important than the personalities, however, was the principle that is at stake. Nothing is more damaging to military cohesion than respect for the chain of command, which is why the Uniform Code of Military Justice is explicit on the subject: “Any commissioned officer who uses contemptuous words against the President, the Vice President, Congress, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of a military department, the Secretary of Transportation, or the Governor or legislature of any State, Territory, Commonwealth, or possession in which he is on duty or present shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.” This makes the protestations of Limbaugh and Coulter and Hannity especially ironic. They have been warning for months that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military will threaten military cohesion, but in the face of a real threat to that cohesion, they turn everything into another avenue for attack on the President.
Of course, the MSNBC evening crowd was hoping to use McChrystal’s firing as another reason to challenge the counter-insurgency strategy that he helped create and which the President endorsed after a series of unprecedented top-down reviews and strategy sessions at the White House. The President, having exhaustively examined the strategy and implemented it was disinclined to change course, only to change horses.
The President’s defenders should not overstate the heroics of yesterday. McChrystal is no MacArthur. I wonder how many Americans could pick McChrystal out of a line-up, but every American knew who MacArthur was and what he had accomplished when Harry Truman fired him. Nor is there any comparison between the two generals’ faults: MacArthur was intent on starting World War III. Nonetheless, President Obama deserves high marks for handling a difficult situation with aplomb. He stared down powerful political factions within his own party to support McChrystal’s strategy for Afghanistan, and he removed McChrystal when his own poor judgment threatened the strategy that had been agreed. Faced with a potentially explosive situation, he did what needed to be done in canning McChrystal and the President turned to the one general who has earned the confidence of all. Obama’s decisions yesterday may not have required the courage of Truman’s, but both illustrate what smart, effective presidential leadership looks like.