- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
President Obama’s awkward relations with his senior military commanders have just taken a turn for the worse – much worse. A new article for the Rolling Stone, released in advance to reporters, dishes all sorts of gossipy dirt on what General McChrystal – or more precisely, what McChrystal’s staff – really thinks about the key principals on Obama’s National Security Council team. Alas, McChrystal and his staff do not think very highly of them, and they were foolishly willing to share their low opinions with an obliging reporter.
The put-downs are remarkably sophomoric — "Biden? Did you say: Bite me?" — and the entire affair reads like a bad high school feud (cue the writers of Glee looking for material for next season). Like a petty high school feud, this new flare-up is just the latest round in a back-and-forth that has gone on for a long time; it is following a script that was predictable long ago. I do not know whether the reporting timelines support this inference, but it sure seems to me like the Rolling Stone story was McChrystal’s staff retaliating for the equally disturbing attacks on McChrystal and Petraeus by White House political advisors in Jonathan Alter’s semi-authorized account of the Afghan Strategy Review.
McChrystal has already apologized and his apology seems sincere. But it may not be enough to save his head from this famously thin-skinned White House. The last time a senior military commander spoke this unwisely to a reporter, he quickly resigned, and rightly so because his bad behavior thoroughly squandered whatever confidence his chain of command had in him by that point. McChrystal has a stronger battlefield record and so may have started with a bit more confidence to squander. Moreover, President Obama may not want the painful confirmation hearings for McChrystal’s successor that a hasty departure would generate. And the McChrystal interview accurately notes that other members of the Obama AfPak team are already on beltway insiders’ short-lists to leave, opening up the possibility of widespread chaos at the top during the most critical year of the war so far. Obama might be wiser to bring McChrystal in for a tongue lashing and send him back into the fight as quickly as possible.
If Obama takes that course, he should also tongue-lash the other participants in this feud, namely his closest circle of White House advisors and his country team in Kabul. The Americans seem to be preoccupied with Washington enemies when they should be directing their fire at the real enemy — the one that is firing bullets, not insults, at them. Indeed, the dissension and back-biting that has characterized the Obama administration is precisely the sort of divide-and-conquer confusion we are trying to foster among the Taliban and Al Qaeda foes we are confronting in the AfPak theater. It is a tragic irony that we have proven more capable of sowing it among our own ranks than among the ranks of the enemy.
Good civil-military relations and the unity of command and effort they engender may not be sufficient to win. But in a war this complex, they may be a necessary condition for success. President Obama has not yet achieved good civil-military relations in the conduct of his wars and he does not have much time to get it right. Let us hope that he finally heeds the wake-up call, however discordant and unfortunate it is.