As I poked around the blogosphere, reading the discussions about the relieving of General McChrystal, I’ve felt a theory emerge on just what happened — and, if true, means that the general’s sacrifice was done as an ultimate expression of loyalty and was a tremendous gift to President Obama.
If he has the wisdom to accept it.
The relationship between President Obama and the top ranks of the military have never been good. Obama has always had stronger alliances with the anti-military faction of the left than with the pro-military side, embracing (loosely, as is his wont) those whose anti-war beliefs extend to disdain (at the best) to those who wage war.
It had gotten so bad (at least as bad as the all-too-plausible but never-verified tales out of the Clinton White House, with military aides allegedly told to not wear uniforms and military personnel treated like furniture or otherwise shown contempt) that McChrystal found himself waging battle on two fronts — one against the terrorists in Afghanistan, one against Obama administration appointees who aggressively leaked detrimental information, unreasonably restricted his options, unnecessarily damaged our relations with critical allies, and in general brought their domestic politics into an arena where it could do nothing but harm.
In brief, McChrystal found his loyalty (and that of the many, many honorable, decent, and valorous men and women under his command) was being taken for granted — and not reciprocated.
Constitutionally, that’s perfectly fine. The military must remain loyal to the civilian leadership, but there is no requirement that that leadership must reciprocate.
Practically speaking, though, loyalty demands to be a two-way street. A true leader understands that he or she owes loyalty in return to those who have given theirs. Faith must be returned, or that loyalty will weaken — or break.
McChrystal, I theorize, saw that the Obama administration needed an abject lesson in that principle — something that is ingrained in anyone who has ever been even a moderately successful leader or manager. (Obviously, that excludes the president, the vice-president, the Secretary of State, and a lot of others in the Obama regime.) So he engineered (or, at least, exploited) an opportunity to teach them.
The on-the-record disdain McChrystal uttered or tolerated among his closest staff was the sort that could not be tolerated. He did the one thing that an officer as high-ranking and prominent as he could — he openly showed his lack of respect to his superiors.
That put Obama in an untenable position. McChrystal’s conduct could not be ignored, could not be excused, could not be tolerated. It had to be answered, and answered firmly.
In brief, McChrystal put Obama in a position where he had no choice but to assert his authority as Commander In Chief, and remind all concerned that the supremacy of our civilian leadership is something that can not be questioned or challenged within our military.
McChrystal, first by allowing the reporting of those remarks and then by submitting his resignation, boxed in Obama to two simple choices. Either he had to refuse the resignation, granting him absolution with a very public “go and sin no more” gesture and a statement of profound contrition and gratitude from McChrystal for the second chance, or accept the resignation of his hand-picked “savior of Afghanistan” and find a new commander for the increasingly-difficult struggle.
The one option not open to Obama was the one to which he is most comfortable: to “vote present.” To do nothing. To step out, make a few grandiose, vague statements, and let the problem just go away. No, he had to take a decisive action in this matter, and be the Commander In Chief.
Yesterday, President Obama — for the first time in his administration — acted like the Commander In Chief he is — but has been in title only. He reminded the military that he is their Constitutional leader, and showed that no general — no matter how popular, no matter how he was Obama’s hand-picked for commander in Afghanistan — is free to reciprocate the contempt and disdain members of the Obama administration has shown them.
There was an even stronger lesson for Obama, one that I wonder if McChrystal planned as well. Obama’s choice of General David Petraeus to replace McChrystal in Afghanistan was, if possible, an even stronger lesson in loyalty to the Commander In Chief.
When Petraeus was being considered by Congress for command in Iraq, Obama was a serious critic of the general’s. Obama’s allies and backers conducted a full-force assault on the general’s ideas and even his character (although MoveOn.org’s desperately trying to erase any signs of its “General Betray-Us” ad it published before he gave a single word of testimony) , and in the end Obama found something else more important to do than cast his vote on Petraeus’ confirmation. (Another point that should not be flushed down the memory hole: the New York Times charged MoveOn.org considerably less than the going rate for their ad, then went back and re-billed them because the discount was so great that it qualified as a donation in kind.)
Now, he’s had to go to Petraeus and ask him to, in effect, take a demotion (Petraeus had been McChrystal’s superior) and return to the theatre. Petraeus didn’t have to do so; hell, he’s been talked about as a possible presidential contender in 2012, and this will, in all likelihood, end that speculation. (Personally, I find that slightly disappointing; Petraeus is my neighbor, with his legal residence not even 20 miles down the road from mine.)
Petraeus accepted this appointment because he is loyal to his commander in chief. He is demonstrating that he puts his oath and his obligations ahead of everything else — even his personal feelings towards Obama and his cronies.
There is no guarantee that Obama will learn this lesson. Indeed, there is no guarantee that he will even recognize that he is being offered this lesson, at the price of McChrystal’s career — and possibly Petraeus’ as well.
But we can hope he does. Because, like it or not, we’re stuck with this guy until January of 2013. We can hope for the failure of his agenda (like Rush Limbaugh said, with his deliberately-provocative “I hope he fails” statement), but we do need a Commander In Chief who at least understands a bit of what that job entails.
The only question is — can Obama learn it? Or is he utterly incapable of doing so, if it means — even implicitly — admitting error?
Lord, I hope so.