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McChrystal’s Duty

Ah, for the days when Democrats were castigating President Bush for supposedly not listening to his generals. See, for example, this Democratic National Committee press release from December 20, 2006, which claimed:

After insisting that troop levels in Iraq would be determined by the commanders in the field, President Bush said today during his news conference that the recommendations of his military leaders are just one of many factors that will determine whether he orders an upsurge of thousands more American troops in Iraq. President Bush is reportedly leaning toward a surge, despite reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously oppose Bush’s proposal to send more troops to Iraq without a clear mission.

But indeed President Bush was listening to some generals on the surge — generals like Odierno and Petraeus, even if their advice did run counter to those of other generals, such as Casey and Abizaid. But now Democrats seem to think that not only should they not bother listening to the generals but that the generals are actually exceeding their authority by making their views known.

The liberal Yale professor Bruce Ackerman, in an op-ed in the Washington Post, takes General McChrystal to task for making “public pronouncements” (such as his comments in London) that a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan wouldn’t work. He believes this is evidence of McChrystal going public to “pressure the president . . . to adopt his strategy.” “This is a plain violation of the principle of civilian control,” he fumes.

Ackerman would have a point if McChrystal were acting contrary to his orders or publicly disagreeing with his orders. But he hasn’t. He has simply commented on the best way to carry out his orders. The intent of the commander in chief was made clear on March 27, when President Obama announced a “comprehensive strategy” for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan. His aim, he said, was “to enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan” and to “reverse the Taliban’s gains and promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government.” “If the Afghan government falls to the Taliban or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged,” Obama said, “that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.”

All that McChrystal is doing is telling the president — and the public — what it will take to prevent that dire scenario from unfolding. There is no indication that he violated any presidential or Pentagon directive by speaking in London; if he had, surely we would have heard about it by now. The message he is sending may not be one the president wants to hear. No doubt, Obama would prefer to achieve our ends without having to send more troops, but McChrystal’s professional military judgment is that more troops will be required to avoid defeat, and it is his responsibility — not only to the commander in chief but also to the troops under his command — to tell the truth. The general is not setting new policy; he is merely offering his judgment about what it will take to implement the existing policy. If Obama wants to change the policy, that’s his prerogative, but McChrystal would be shying away from his duty if he failed to note that a different strategy would be unlikely to accomplish the president’s objectives.



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