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Is McChrystal another MacArthur?

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Is McChrystal another MacArthur?

I have a generally favorable view of General Stanley McChrystal as a military tactician. He faces a monumental task, and I think he has made some progress. He has altered the engagement guidelines for aerial Drone attacks, reducing unnecessary civilian deaths. He has built new working arrangements with local Afghan leaders. He has also deployed American soldiers for more effective forward counterinsurgency operations. McChrystal has not won the war, but he has shown competence and effectiveness.

Worthiness for field command, however, requires much more than battlefield competence and support from the soldiers. A field commander must respect civilian authority. In the American system, the president and his civilian advisors (including the Secretaries of Defense and State, the Vice President, and appointed ambassadors) set strategy. Energetic and ambitious generals, like McChrystal understand this constitutional principle, but they quickly neglect it because they come to believe that they know better. Most infamous, General Douglas MacArthur, the hero of World War II in the Pacific, came to believe that he could discount his president’s strategic decisions in Korea. The West Point graduate and seasoned soldier thought he knew better than the president who never attended college and served minimally in World War I.

McChrystal appears to have fallen into the same abyss. His recent comments to Rolling Stone Magazine explicitly challenge civilian authority. They show reckless disregard for the Constitution. Most of all, they jeopardize American purposes in Afghanistan, as MacArthur’s comments challenged American purposes in Korea. Everything we are fighting for in Afghanistan is to put the civilians in charge, not the thugs. Everything we are fighting for in Afghanistan is good governance, not rule by the generals. Furthermore, every war in US history shows, it seems to me, that confident military commanders get into trouble when they try to seal themselves off, making decisions on their own. Witness MacArthur’s disastrous decision to cross the 38th Parallel in Korea and then split his Army as it approached the Yalu River on the Chinese border.

Despite McChrystal’s battlefield skills, the larger American political and strategic aims in Afghanistan should motivate Obama to fire the general and reaffirm presidential command. Obama should follow President Truman’s courageous sacking of MacArthur in 1951. I say this as a supporter of American activities in Afghanistan. Obama needs a commander in this region that he can trust. He also needs a commander who will model appropriate behavior for other soldiers and citizens. McChrystal has clearly failed on this standard.

Success in Afghanistan requires soldiers who fight for constitutional government, not against it. Generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall understood this, and they supported Douglas MacArthur’s removal in 1951. I believe they would affirm President Obama’s need to remove McChrystal today for similar reasons.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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