McChrystal resignation shows Obama weakness

Many pundits have been pounding the theme that Obama must fire General Stan McChrystal to avoid looking weak.  They are dead wrong.  The firing of McChrystal shows much greater weakness than keeping him would.  It was an unjust action, and there is nothing weaker as a leader than taking unjust action to avoid being seen as weak.

Full disclosure: I worked for GEN McChrystal on several occasions.  While I was not part of his inner circle, I observed him closely as a combat commander in Iraq.  Simply put: Stan McChrystal is the single most effective human being I have ever observed in any walk of life, ever, anywhere.  As a military officer he has no peer.  To watch him work inspires awe.  His men nicknamed him “the cyborg” for his relentless focus, hard work, and self discipline, and yet he was a warm, unpretentious, funny commander who gave and received fierce loyalty from those who worked for him.  He also exuded unyielding integrity in every aspect of his conduct.  Having said all that, it has nothing to do with the question of whether he should be fired.

First, if you have not read the Rolling Stone article carefully and completely, do so now.  You cannot begin to form your own opinion on this matter without reading the article.  The article is essentially a tenuous 3rd hand account: what the author says that aides said that McChrystal said.  Don’t compound the error by relying on press coverage of the article.

Bottom line: McChyrstal was not insubordinate.  At no point in the article did he personally say anything derogatory about anyone in his chain of command.  Now keep in mind there were only 3 people in his legal Chain of Command:  General Petraeus, Secretary Gates, and President Obama.  Nobody else has authority over him.  Holbrooke and Eikenberry are McChrystal’s peers in the hierarchy of the US Government; while not particularly smart to feud in public, he owes them no deference.

The only offensive statement that can be attributed to McChyrstal was his joke about “Biden who”.  Yet read the account of this conversation carefully.  Notice the author paraphrases the rest of the conversation, rather than literally quoting McChrystal.  In doing so he denies us any information to interpret for ourselves what McChystal meant, and forces us to accept his interpretation of the tone.  We are given a single sentence, devoid of context, and asked to believe the word of a reporter with an overt agenda to undermine the war effort.

Did unnamed members of his staff say stupid things?  Yes … but put their statements in context.  These are men who have been living in a foreign country, in a combat zone, working 20 hour days for months on end without a break.  They spend most of those days locked in plywood huts staring at computer screens, associating only with each other, trying with every trick they know to turn around the situation that their boss has sole responsibility for.  They are immersed in their own all-consuming world, oblivious to matters outside the borders of their war, and uncomprehending of how their words would play in the US.  Ask any overseas vet what this feels like.

So why did McChrystal let this happen?  Most likely, he and his inner circle were simply novices at handling the press. That’s hard to believe, unless you know where he came from.  He commanded our most elite counter terrorism forces in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2004 to 2008.  I was in and out of his headquarters in both locations hundreds of times during that time, and I never saw a reporter.  Not once.  He ran a highly classified operation and they were just not allowed.  So his personal staff never learned how to deal with reporters.  Most critically, they never learned that in Washington, press comments by unnamed aides are taken as back channel statements by “the boss”.

Beyond that, I think he is simply unable to say things that he does not believe, or to feign attitudes he didn’t feel.  It violates his sense of integrity to falsify, conceal, or misrepresent anything.  He still follows the West Point Honor Code: “a cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those who do”.

Was McChrystal naive?  Yes.  Most likely he was naive to believe that the truth would prevail; that if he opened up his headquarters to a reporter, even one with a hostile agenda, that the reporter would be won over by brutal honesty and openness.  The world, alas, is more complicated.  Honor is not common currency.

Some people speculate that this was a deliberate move by McChrystal, either to get out of a sinking ship or to set up political aspirations.  Rest assured, McChrystal would never willingly violate the Prime Directive: NEVER QUIT.  As for politics, the idea would be repellent to him.

On to Obama’s decision to fire him.  Yes, fire.  McChrystal’s resignation was a ritual move in the kabuki dance of public life in a democracy.  Obama fired him.

A true leader puts his cause above all else.  Especially himself.  There can be no leadership without sacrifice, and that starts at the top.  Leadership is not about strengthening the leader; it is about achieving the goals towards which he leads.

Consider the full weight of what just happened.  After investing a full year in building a strategy to win in Afghanistan, Obama has fired the chief architect of that strategy because of 3rd hand press accounts of private grumbling by unnamed aides.  McChrystal built enormous trust and rapport with our Afghan partners, and acquired unique expertise about that conflict, and now it’s all gone.  Petraeus, brilliant though he is, will not be able to replicate that expertise for at least 6 months to a year.  By then, the withdrawal will have begun, and we will have lost.

Obama faced a test with this situation.  What was more important to him: doing everything possible to win the war, or bolstering his own public image?  Looking “strong” by facing down a rogue general, or looking “weak” by letting the infraction slide?  Yet the outcome reveals a paradox.  By fearing to do the right thing, by prioritizing his own image over the goals he supposedly wants to achieve in Afghanistan, Obama shows true weakness.

Had he rebuked McChrystal, then restated his full support for the General and his strategy, Obama would have shown true courage and resolve.  He would have shown himself to be a confident leader, comfortable enough to ignore press noise and focus on victory.  He would also have deeply impressed a military leadership by standing up against the press.  Instead, we see a man awash in narcissism, unable to tolerate even accidental disrespect because he fears “looking weak.”

Much talk is made of MacArthur and Truman.  But a more apt historical example would be Lincoln and GEN Ulysses Grant.  Asked at a press conference what he would do about scandalous reports of Grant’s heavy drinking, Lincoln responded that he would find out what brand of whiskey Grant drank and send a case to  his other Generals.  There was a Commander in Chief who knew what was important.  Generals are hired to fight and to win, not to make the press happy.

I feel terrible for McChrystal, knowing the depth of his devotion to his country.  But that pales against the sadness I feel for our country.  We have lost a great and talented patriot, sacrificed in the hour of our greatest need to protect the fragile ego of a President and an administration that lives for public opinion.  It’s almost as if they WANT to lose the war.