In Murder in the Cathedral, T. S. Elliot decries “the right deed for the wrong reason,” a view I have never shared. In politics, lots of right deeds are done for lots of wrong reasons, and we are all better for it. The president’s firing of General Stanley McChrystal is an example. To see why, consider three other presidents in crisis.
John F. Kennedy:
In a speech that was as effective as the prior week’s oil spill speech was ineffective, Mr. Obama cited maintaining absolute civilian control over the military as the rationale for his decision. It isn’t generally understood, but similar stakes were in play in President Kennedy’s decision to deny air cover to Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs.
Mr. Kennedy was the first postwar president who had not been a leader of the World War II effort. It seems clear from Theodore Sorenson’s memoire that the military brass felt that, despite Kennedy’s insistence that American forces not be engaged in the Cuban invasion, once presented with the reality of men on the beach, the president would have to relent.
Kennedy was too inexperienced to see what was coming. When the intended trap was sprung, he stood by his earlier decision and thereby asserted and preserved the primacy of the presidency in military matters. The wrong decision strategically was the right one constitutionally. President Obama appears to have felt his authority, too, was challenged, in this case by remarks of the general and his staff with a Rolling Stone reporter present.
As Doris Kearns Goodwin recounted in a New York Times op-ed last week (http://tiny.cc/37eyo ), Lincoln put up with far greater humiliations from his first commander of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, than Mr. Obama has endured from General McChrystal. Lincoln wanted victory and was ready to tolerate much from generals who aggressively pursued it. His most striking statement of this view came in early 1863, when, after sacking McClellan and then Ambrose Burnside, he put Joseph Hooker in charge of the army.
To Hooker he wrote:
“I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders.… And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.”
So if Kennedy jealously and appropriately guarded presidential authority, Lincoln showed care in distinguishing between pride and authority and not letting pride frustrate results. But as Mr. Obama emphasized in his Wednesday speech, he and McChrystal were on the same strategic page. Ms. Goodwin suggested Lincoln (who fired McClellan only when he resolved that his strategic view and McClellan’s were incompatible) would not have discharged McChrystal. Is Goodwin right?
My Reagan moment came not in his presidency but in his 1980 campaign.
Reagan’s first campaign manager was the flamboyant, brilliant, and mercurial John Sears. For months, Sears had all too often upstaged his candidate. Reagan had accepted this behavior so long as he believed Sears could bring him victory. After his disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses, Reagan lost faith in Sears’ strategy. He kept Sears as titular head of the campaign while taking control of operations himself. Two weeks later, on New Hampshire primary night, he replaced the entire Sears campaign team.
Whether it is Lincoln with his generals in 1862-3 or Reagan with his campaign manager in 1980 (or George W. Bush with his Iraq War team in 2006), strong presidents have insisted upon results, paying less attention to insubordinate remarks, upstaging, and other preening. No results, no job.
While President Obama stood behind General McChrystal’s strategy, there were elements of the general’s tactics and execution that were increasing problems. The president appears to have given McChrystal’s replacement, David Petraeus, the green light to fix them.
The most critical of these problem areas were the over-the-top rules of engagement and, as I have heard from recent veterans of the conflict, a failure to execute essential non-combat elements of effective counter insurgency doctrine – building up a reliable indigenous force, securing and improving the lives of the civilian population, disrupting and marginalizing the enemy as a viable alterative for the people.
So the general’s strategy was right, but his execution of it was proving badly flawed. And like the top brass Kennedy overruled, he was unwilling to fix it. In itself, The Rolling Stone story was the wrong reason to replace McChrystal with Petraeus. But it was the right deed, and it came at the right time.
Kennedy, Lincoln, and Reagan would surely agree.