The War on Terror that Gen. Stanley McChrystal formerly helped prosecute involved dealing with some pretty troubled countries. And part of these countries’ troubles occurred because their men in uniform grew too big for their britches (or, perhaps, their epaulets).
Iraq overthrew its monarchy after military man Abdel Karim Qassim staged a bloody coup in 1958. Qassim didn’t last long, but one of his soldier-successors, Saddam Hussein, did. Pakistan, meanwhile, endured 10 years of military rule after Gen. Pervez Musharraf overthrew Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. The resulting dictatorship only ended last year.
These tumultuous examples of military misdeeds contrast dramatically with the American tradition of subordinating the military to the chief executive. It is a tradition that has ensured, if not always success abroad, then at least the more important goal of stability at home … and it is a tradition that President Barack Obama upheld when he sacked McChrystal this week following the disclosure of the latter’s unfortunate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine.
For all of soldier-statesman Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warnings about a military-industrial complex, and for all of the continuing growth of our defense budget, our presidents have still stood up to the military in one crucial way. They remind the nation that it is the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- and not some would-be Napoleon -- who is Commander-in-Chief.
President Abraham Lincoln gave Gen. George McClellan the heave-ho … repeatedly … during the Civil War for multiple acts of disobedience. President Harry S Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordinate behavior during the Korean War (which marks the 60th anniversary of its outbreak this year). President Bill Clinton removed Gen. Wesley Clark from command of NATO forces overseeing the war in Kosovo in 1999 due to more obstinacy from the field. Now, Obama has joined his name to that resolute list.
Granted, McChrystal’s missteps seem tame compared to those of McClellan, MacArthur or Clark … and certainly with those of Qassim, Hussein and Musharraf. Still, he should have known better than to disparage his superiors before the media. A soldier, no matter how many stripes he has on his shoulder, should always salute the president and his officials … not give them the raspberry.
Maybe McChrystal felt he earned the right to speak out due to his achievements in Central Asia, which included a good working relationship with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Maybe he’s even right in his remarks -- maybe the Obama Administration really is leading Afghanistan toward “Chaos-istan.” But the place to voice such misgivings is to the chief executive himself, not to the microphones of the media, and the tragedy of his public comments is that the insubordination they represent outweighs his accomplishments on the battlefield.
Obama may continue to make tactical mistakes in foreign policy, but on a larger issue he is as rock-solid as Lincoln, Truman and Clinton. He knows that democracy can only continue if the politicians can fire the generals, not the other way around.