There is so much commentary about how General Stanley McChrystal’s firing was a no-brainer. I don’t like that.
I think the firing was justifiable, because the comments were unprofessional, stupid and rude. The same was true of General McChrystal’s London speech. It is fair to decide that General McChrystal is not a good fit, or doesn’t have the proper skills to work with the media. That would justify the President’s decision.
But, wouldn’t firing him compromise the support or success of our mission? If we view his actions as insubordinate (and why not?), then our mission is already compromised. Replacing him could repair that, maybe even if the replacement is a lesser general.
This isn’t some technical project that we bid out to McChrystal and his guys in green. This is an actual war that has killed over a thousand Americans. Supposedly, it is a necessary use of military force to protect vital American interests, overseen by civilian officials in government, and supported by citizens and Congress. The Commander-in-Chief is in charge of this war, and his commitment to our mission should rest not only on the assurance of winning but on the necessity and justice of trying. There is the potential for cynicism and backward logic in the decision to retain a decidedly insubordinate general, which might demonstrate insecurity in our initial justifications and strategy for war.
It’s easier to argue against firing McChrystal if we believe he was not insubordinate. There’s an article that argues he wasn’t. We can debate that, but the war can’t wait for a jury (or whatever it’s called in a court-martial). As a non-legal question, was McChrystal poking fun and frustration at his team of rivals, or was he repudiating the war and its leaders during a conflict?
For the administration, I worry that the analysis focused too much on political concerns. One is that Obama could regain an image of decisiveness and effectiveness (after the BP response) by firing McChrystal. I also wonder if Obama wants out of the war, and a story with insubordination and firing could eventually get him out while avoiding the look of presidential failure or forfeit. It would be shameful to use the firing decision for those purposes, but those concerns add political texture to the question.
The decision wasn’t a no-brainer, and the first clue is that it’s our Afghanistan policy. Furthermore, to make a quick decision and move on from this issue would be wrong. It doesn’t make sense to worry about the consequences of replacing an expert leader and then ignore the merit of the comments that led to his removal. Supporters of the president may not want us to learn from those comments, and opponents of the war might not want us to implement what we learn. But, while we’re still in Afghanistan, we should.
Instead of a no-brainer, this decision should be a 360-degree case-study, examined urgently from every angle. This decisions reflects on big questions: whether Americans should ever fight a war this way, at our current levels of executive unity and national will. While politics might require Obama to make this look like a no-brainer, good policy requires him (if only privately) to make it look otherwise.