Friday, June 25, 2010

The General & the President

In his 1953 short story, “Disappearing Act”, the great science fiction writer Alfred Bester once wrote:
There are fighting generals (vital to an army), political generals (vital to an administration), and public relations generals (vital to a war).
Perhaps there are generals that can be a bit of all three, but Stanley McChrystal is not one of them. No question he was a battle general par excellence, but his political and PR instincts were terrible. (Steve Metz, a professor at the Army War College said all of this with greater erudition for The New Republic.) It is not likely that McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview crossed the line into forbidden political activity. But it did demonstrate abject stupidity – people at his level ought to know to exercise some discretion around journalists. His big mouth about his colleagues demonstrated that he is no political general either, who can play nice with other agencies and governments.

Presidential Authority
I’ve come late to this pundit party, so I’ll just make a few quick comments (besides quoting Alfie Bester.) My first thought was about the President’s actions (I have a whole blog devoted to this issue.) In his landmark Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt established that presidents have only limited powers of command. In general they share their powers with other branches of government and other actors inside and outside of government. To get anything done, they need to persuade. Even where presidents have clear powers to command, they must exercise them judiciously so that they do not provoke other powers in the government to align themselves against the president. In making this argument, Neustadt begins by discussing three cases in which presidents had clear command powers and how they were circumspect in using them. One of these cases was Truman decision to fire MacArthur.

There was something satisfying in seeing a President exercise his authority in an unambiguous manner. The past few months President Obama has been dealing with the Gulf Oil spill – where he needs to appear concerned, but has very little influence over the outcome. Sometimes it is good for the commander-in-chief to command.

As it happens, I was chatting with a Thai acquaintance who noted that in his homeland, a political leader’s attempt to fire a general would probably result in a coup. The United States does not run this risk. We have an interesting hybrid system where in many situations authority is unclear – but on certain crucial issues (such as the Supreme Court’s power to interpret the constitution) authority is unquestioned.

Strategic Implications
My friend Ilan Berman had a smart piece in the Washington Times stating that the Rolling Stone article highlighted the strategic incoherence of the administration’s Afghanistan policy.

In this case personnel is policy. Besides the fact the (as Steve Metz notes in the post I link to above) Petraeus probably has better skills for the mission – his personal credibility is also important. Petraeus demonstrated that he could play nice with the other kids – forging a good working relationship with Ambassador Crocker and charming Congress. He might also be able to amend the deadlines that threaten to crush the Afghanistan mission. If Pretraeus can credibly report progress he might be given the leeway to maintain troop levels past the withdrawal deadline so that progress can be maintained.

in that light, losing McChrystal may be the best thing that can happen to Afghanistan.

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