Finally tonight as promised a Special Comment on the self-destruction of General Stanley McChrystal.
"We have the highest respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and sacrifice to our nation. General McChrystal's comments, as reported in Rolling Stone, are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between Commander-in-Chief and the military."
Senators Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and John McCain. They left out the far greater truth — that the comments are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between military and civilian authority and are thus intolerable.
We can honor his service, the way we honor the service of General Curtis LeMay, or the way we honor the service of General Douglas MacArthur — forever blemished, forever compromised, forever instructive that how ever much credit each heroic soldier deserves, he and his comrades are not the masters of this country, but its employees.
It is the fundamental tenet on which this nation rests; it is what has kept us from any serious dalliance with a militaristic government in all our long history; it is the simple balanced poetry that has saved us from the threat of military overthrow and dictatorship for 234 years while nearly all the other great nations of the world, from Germany to Japan, have succumbed to it.
And what happens next should be no surprise to anybody: General McChrystal will walk into the White House tomorrow and offer his resignation, not just from his leadership position in Afghanistan, but from military service itself.
And that, Mr. President, is when you should thank him for that service. And you should thank him for whatever admission he makes about the chain of command. And that is when, Sir —presuming he recognizes his rank stupidity and his erasure of that inviolable line between the military and the civilian — you should say you are heartened that he realizes the depth and breadth of his idiocy.
And that is when, Sir, you should take General McChrystal's resignation, and fold it up, and put it in your top drawer, and tell him that that is where it will remain, and that as of now you are not accepting it. Correct.
He tenders his resignation. You tell him to get back to Afghanistan because he's not getting out of this morass he helped create, and tell him to make sure we get the surge troops withdrawn on time or faster if he can. And then, Sir, you sit back and watch the political world's collective jaw drop.
This would not be mere contrariness, nor even the satisfying destabilization of the entire political climate — although those would be fun, too. Consider the last Administration. Let's look at the list alphabetically.
General John Abizaid of CentCom. Expressed public skepticism about the Bush surge in Iraq. Replaced. General George Casey, Iraq. Expressed public skepticism about the Bush surge in Iraq. Replaced. Admiral William Fallon, ex-head of CentCom. Told Esquire Magazine we should not use force against Irahn. Retired by Mr. Bush.
Dr. Larry Lindsey, director of the National Economic Council. Told Mr. Rumsfeld estimated that war in Iraq would cost 60 billion dollars. He said, no, $200 billion. Rumsfeld called that "baloney." Lindsey was fired. It was "baloney" — it cost three trillion dollars.
General Eric Shinsecki, Army Chief of Staff. Warned that the Rumsfeld troop estimates were disastrously low, hundreds of thousands would be needed for occupation. "Villified, then marginalized" by Bush.
General Anthony Zinni, Marines, Retired, Middle East Envoy. Said that the President had far more pressing foreign policy priorities to face than Iraq, and that the trouble would start in Iraq after the war itself ended. Not reappointed.
Remember, this, from the previous President whose empty, but lovely-sounding catchphrase, was 'I listen to the commanders on the ground.' It was true. He did listen. And then he fired all the ones who dared to tell him the truth.
It cannot be argued that General McChrystal has said anything as controversial, as jarring, as upsetting to the status quo, as any of the men Bush ignored, and in ignoring, led to the deaths of Americans, and to the wasting of money and international goodwill. McChrystal made, to be blunt about it, a fool out of himself. He called a lot of people names. He has previously been involved in the leak of his own complaints demanding more troops and faster decisions in Afghanistan.
And most heinously — and this is the toughest part of this pill to swallow — he was the facilitator in the cover-up of the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman. It is difficult to bypass an opportunity for retribution against such a man. But more opportunities for that will come in time.
It is not McChrystal that matters right now. It is doubtful he is an irreplacable general officer. It is doubtful he will influence Afghanistan much one way or the other — that mistake has been made already by this military and this President.
But Mr. President, consider the after-math of McChrystal's resignation or firing. If, in the America of 1951, the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, a strutting peacock of a soldier with a corncob pipe and a messianic complex, could turn the politics of the time on its head because Harry Truman had had the temerity to fire him after he said we should use nukes against the Chinese and create an impassible radioactive zone in the Far East.
If that happened then what exactly will the ouster of General McChrystal provoke, in our stupid, under-informed, constantly propagandized America of 2010? Who will be the first to identify McChrystal as a martyr to the evil Obama Administration? How many Americans, still looking for a rationalization to justify their rage at a Democratic president, or a black one, or an intelligent one, will have new fuel to feed their blind hatred?
Keep him, Mr. President. will not merely neuter the political blowback, you will present a front of force, and calm, and intelligence, and a willingness to, dare I use the phrase Sir — a willingness to listen to the Commanders on the ground, even when they shoot off their big brass-covered bazoos.
You can own him, Mr. President, and own the political aftermath, now pregnant with opportunities for your critics. The General can be your voice to speed up the de-escalation. My goodness, he could be your mouthpiece if you suddenly saw the morass for what it is and decided to declare victory and get the hell out now. Who would fight you on that, Sir?
You would be the President who defended General McChrystal after he humiliated himself. You would be the leader sensitive to the military, and its needs, and its failures, and its pressures.
President Obama has pushed the Abraham Lincoln thing from the day he declared his candidacy. It may serve him well tonight to consider the third of the eight generals Lincoln employed to run the Union Army during the Civil War. After the Antietam disaster, Mr. Lincoln cashiered General McClellan — "Young Napoleon" — and promoted John Pope of Illinois. His advisors were horrified.
Pope, as Shelby Foote recalled in Ken Burns's documentary, was a liar and a braggart. Yes, said Lincoln. In fact I knew his family back in Illinois. All the Popes were liars and braggarts. I see no particular reason why a liar and a braggart shouldn't make a good general. Pope did not win the Civil War, but in appointing him, Lincoln made it plain that what he needed from his Generals was usefulness, not etiquette.
And which is more useful to this President and this nation right now? A martyred ex-General, around which an irresponsible and potentially dangerous opposition can coalesce? Or a spared and humbled General, surely no worse than any potential replacement, whose retention can recalculate the political formula... without a drop of blood, or a drop of teers, being shed?