Obama Makes It McChrystal Clear

Surprise! Sometimes a firing offense gets you fired.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On occasion, life can be so simple: Trash-talking the boss in public means that you get fired for it. Ill-considered action leads to swift and painful consequences. The fact that you’re a military man who signed up to follow the orders and the lead of the commander in chief makes his decision to fire you that much easier when you and your staff are disrespectful and dismissive for the benefit of a magazine reporter.

But frankly, this was not what I was expecting. This is Washington, and I did not expect the process to be so linear, so empty of political calculation. What about the president’s relationship with the military, his standing in the polls? Only a year ago, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was supposed to represent ”fresh thinking and fresh eyes” in Afghanistan when he replaced Gen. David D. McKiernan as the top commander of U.S. forces there. McKiernan had disappointed his superiors at the Pentagon and at the White House and was publicly fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. McChrystal was supposed to be the savior, the man with a new strategy that could bring some resolution to the war in Afghanistan.

So when McChrystal and his staff went to town on the civilians running the war back in Washington, the obvious choice to fire him was not what I was expecting from the White House. I thought that Gen. McChrystal, having been taken to the woodshed, would be battered and bruised, that he would be publicly repentant, but at the end of the day he would still be commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

My Facebook status update posted just a few minutes after the meeting between McChrystal and Obama began on Wednesday said this: ”I say keep McChrystal. Make him win the war. Now he has something to prove.”

Washington decision making is almost never an exercise in logical course. I assumed there would be more personal intrigue and political drama than we got. After all, the White House had publicly summoned McChrystal back to Washington for his possible beheading. Based on past performance, I guessed that the high profile of the public summons was to be the real reprimand, that being called to the principal’s office on the world’s PA system was humiliation enough — and that McChrystal would survive the spanking. The commander in chief apparently was of a different mind and in a fouler mood.

The way I had it figured was that this president was not in a position to alienate the military brass, particularly at such a crucial moment in the Afghan campaign. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that firing McChrystal would be disruptive of the war effort. I even thought that the president might factor in his problems with the spill and a still-lethargic economy and decide that McChrystal was an issue he wants to go away. Instead, he made the general himself go away.

This was widely cast as a test of Obama’s leadership, and what I was reacting to was a sense that he would, as he is so often wont to do, split the difference and try to gain favor with people on different sides of the debate. He was not playing that game on Wednesday.