Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Bye Bye Birdie: Obama's Decision to Fire (Or Not) General McChrystal Ain't a Black Thing or a White Thing, It is a Presidential Thing
Once more, heavy is the head that wears the crown. Barack Obama, I do not envy you your meeting with General McChrystal today. Why? For either way, your choice will be greeted with howls, complaints, and few cheers. I differ here from the pundit classes who like to make big predictions and cut and dry prognoses (as for these experts grand predictions are rewarded, while delicate, measured responses are met with few approvals). To dismiss McChrystal is a hard decision, one far more difficult than many would admit to.
The comments of McChrystal and his staff in Rolling Stone magazine would suggest that the former is not a "political" general. He is a fighter, a warrior, and a killer. At West Point, General McChrystal was frequently disciplined for disobedience. Yet, as an officer he charted his own path, one that often hewed against conventional wisdom. I will not deny that I was quite impressed with his 60 Minutes interview and the sense that McChrystal, especially after his successes in Iraq, was "that dude" for Afghanistan. Like so many, now, after the failures in Iraq, his repeated episodes of foot in mouth disease, the cover-up of the Tillman death, and the lack of faith among some of his troops for the mission in Afghanistan, I am now quite doubtful of his capacity to lead.
We should also frame this current controversy in some reasonable sort of historical context. McChrystal and his staff's frankness is not the same beast as that rank insubordination demonstrated by the America Caesar, Douglass MacArthur in Korea. In parallel, it is not exactly like Patton's during World War 2. The Rolling Stone interview where Obama, Biden, various officials, and others were basically described as buffoonish louts, leading the country to defeat in Afghanistan, is a case all its own.
Here, Obama is truly a bound man. If President Obama keeps McChrystal, the Republicans will claim 1) a victory and 2) that the whole episode signals that Obama has lost the support of the military and is thus further illegitimate as President. If President Obama fires McChrystal (after a dressing down), his supporters claim victory and this is another vindication that the Democrats are tough on national defense. Yet in keeping with the tenets of partisanship, Obama's detractors will still find a way to see failure in his decision--whatever it may be.
I am a pragmatist. If Obama feels that we are winning in Afghanistan I say keep McChrystal on. Eat the embarrassment, smile, and move forward with the trust that history is the ultimate arbiter of presidential decision-making. If the opposite, I say don't throw bad money after bad money. Fire the man and his staff and use this moment to exercise decisive leadership as we reorient the nation's path in Afghanistan. While histrionic attention seekers would cast this moment as a crisis of sorts regarding the constitutional authority of elected officials over the military, I have read the Rolling Stone interview and see this as more a case of foot in mouth disease on the part of McChrystal and his staff.
Let's be frank. The Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan was indiscreet. He was stupid. His behavior bordered on being a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and was just plain dumb. But...what to do?
Provocatively, (aside from a dig at Biden, who now seems vindicated) is there anything that McChrystal and his staff said in this interview regarding the overall failure of the Afghan mission that is untrue? More troublesomely, my gut tells me that Afghanistan is lost. It is the graveyard of empires, and is quite frankly a shit hole that we should not have wasted one American life on.
More broadly, in Obama's decision some folks will read meaning where there is none. For racism chasers this will be a chance to highlight the impudence of a white man, one who seemingly bristles under the authority of a black President. For white Conservative racial reactionaries this will be a call to arms, as well as a triumph for a "good" white man has stood up to a "black" President. Neither could be more untrue.
This moment is a struggle between the military and civilian control, one that exists apart from any petty concerns of race. And yes, I said "petty." For me, this is one more data point, and a great example of a President having to making a presidential choice outside of our national obsession.
Ultimately, Barack Obama signed up for the job. As Commander in Chief, Barack Obama now has to make a choice, one not dissimilar from those that caused his predecessors many sleepless nights. For me, these are the moments where the possibility of post-racial America is made real: I love watching a black American having to deal with the ups and downs, the tedium, the difficulty, and challenges of being the President. This is one of the real fruits of the Black Freedom Struggle and the losses, difficulties, pain, and sacrifice of our ancestors. It is at times bitter fruit. But, it is still glorious to behold.
What should Barack Obama do with General McChrystal? And how would you make the call?