Shadow Government

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Tom Ricks gets the McChrystal affair mostly right … but not entirely

I have a lot of time for my FP blogging colleague, Tom Ricks, even when we disagree.  But I keep reflecting on two of his General McChrystal related observations and I can’t square them with what I know (or think I know) about history and civil-military relations. So, at the risk of starting a petty ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

I have a lot of time for my FP blogging colleague, Tom Ricks, even when we disagree.  But I keep reflecting on two of his General McChrystal related observations and I can't square them with what I know (or think I know) about history and civil-military relations. So, at the risk of starting a petty intramural squabble, here are some counterpoints.

In his otherwise sensible New York Times Op-Ed, Ricks made the following claim:

If President Obama had not fired General McChrystal, it would have been like President Truman keeping on Douglas MacArthur after his insubordination during the Korean War."

I have a lot of time for my FP blogging colleague, Tom Ricks, even when we disagree.  But I keep reflecting on two of his General McChrystal related observations and I can’t square them with what I know (or think I know) about history and civil-military relations. So, at the risk of starting a petty intramural squabble, here are some counterpoints.

In his otherwise sensible New York Times Op-Ed, Ricks made the following claim:

If President Obama had not fired General McChrystal, it would have been like President Truman keeping on Douglas MacArthur after his insubordination during the Korean War."

Now I supported McChrystal resigning — calling it "clearly a firing offense" — and I wholeheartedly agree that the disrespectful command climate that the Rolling Stone interview revealed was corrosive of healthy civil-military relations. But it was meaningfully less corrosive than the MacArthur incident on several dimensions and it is both unfair and unwise to equate the two. MacArthur vigorously opposed Truman’s Korea policies of restraint, sought to lift them, and was colluding with friendly reporters and political allies back in Washington to thwart them. And he made no bones about this disagreement, as his post-firing Congressional lobbying makes clear.  McChrystal and President Obama both claimed that there was no policy dispute at issue, neither in the Rolling Stone interview nor in the larger civil-military dustup. McChrystal’s disrespectful comments were directed at members of Obama’s team who, in McChrystal’s views, were not doing enough to implement Obama’s policies. This is a distinction that may not matter in terms of McChrystal keeping his job, but should influence what we learn from the incident (and may justify giving McChrystal a dispensation to retire at 4-star pay.

My second quibble may be a tick more substantial.  In a recent blog post, Ricks argues that Republican Senators who pressed the issue during General Petraeus’ confirmation hearing were right that Obama’s military timeline made no military sense but wrong to try to pin Petraeus down on whether the military had ever recommended it. As Ricks argues (absolutely correctly): "just because the military is strongly against an approach doesn’t mean the approach is wrong." Moreover, Ricks argues the timeline might even make sense in a larger context.  In Ricks’ words:

So, while the Afghan deadline makes no sense militarily, it might make sense politically, both for domestic political reasons and in prodding the Afghan government. If you believe, as I do, that the Afghan government is our biggest problem in the war (followed closely by the Pakistani government), then what happens to the Taliban is a secondary issue, and the primary question has to be: How do we get a government in Afghanistan that is not counterproductive and can field reasonably good security forces?"

I think Ricks may be right in theory but is himself missing three important aspects of the larger context that indicate he may be wrong in this case:

  • Establishing the provenance of the timeline is useful not merely for the historical record but also as an antidote to a potentially dangerous gambit that some of Obama’s political advisors may have been attempting. According to Jonathan Alter’s account of the Fall 2009 Afghan Strategy Review, the White House sought to pin the military down on the timeline so as to give the White House political cover to abandon the Afghanistan surge; they wanted to be able to pin the blame for any failure on the military and the timeline played a key role to this end.  This kind of gamesmanship is bad strategy and makes for bad civil-military relations. Identifying who proposed what and why is helpful.
  • The timeline indeed is foolish in a narrow military sense, as Ricks himself recognizes. But it is also counter-productive for the larger strategic aim to which Ricks in his post seeks to direct the critics’ focus: getting helpful governments in Kabul (and Islamabad). The arbitrary timeline and the strategic confusion it has generated has created the exact opposite incentives. Instead of creating a sense of urgency, it has created a sense of despair and incentivized our local partners to hedge and seek separate deals.
  • The timeline is an exceedingly expensive and unnecessary way of buying acquiescence (it has not bought support) from Obama’s left flank.  Public support for the war in Afghanistan is wobbly, but nowhere near as weak as was support for the war in Iraq when President Bush pushed for a similar surge. President Obama’s influence over his Afghanistan policy opponents was and is much greater than Bush’s influence was over either supporters or opponents at the time of the surge. Bush had come close to exhausting his reservoir of political capital in mobilizing support for the war. Obama has barely started to tap his reservoir in the war’s cause. And so on.

In short, the timeline made no military sense, no strategic sense, and little political sense — except in partisan terms of enabling Obama to shift any blame from a potential failure from himself to the military. Clarifying who insisted on the timeline and who is merely accepting it is a useful function in an otherwise less-than-dramatic congressional hearing.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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