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Rolling Stone's Insight

We do not know whether the president will accept General McChrystal’s proffered resignation as Commanding General. But that uncertainty does not at all detract from the real insights to be gained from this most recent contretemps between the Republic’s Commander-in-Chief and his subordinates in the field.

There is a pattern here: Consider, first, the president’s leadership for the past two months, during an environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. In that light, consider his leadership in the war of counter-insurgency against Islamic extremists in Afghanistan.

The relationship between an American Commander-in-Chief and his field commanders in both of these situations, assessed properly, ought to be judged on the basis of three outcomes: (1) can he recruit and put in place a talented team whose members can work together; (2) can he lead them in crafting an efficacious strategy and implementing policies to achieve established presidential (and, one would hope, national) goals; and, (3) can he ride herd on the implementation of that approved strategy and policy to match the zigs and zags offered by the enemy or by nature until policy objectives are realized on the ground?

In other words, can he produce results, through others, by his own leadership as Commander-in-Chief?

In the case of General McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article, let’s recognize the article for what it is-–an insider’s look at the honest frustrations of veterans of eight years of war who let their guards down to a “trusted” reporter and got badly burned for their lack of professional judgment in doing so. There is no defense for McChrystal’s comments or his lack of leadership over his own staff.

That said, those frustrations were well reported in the article by Mr. Hastings and go well beyond the “disrespectful” comments by McChrystal’s staff, whose press coverage has obscured real confusion and dissention—at the very top—regarding purpose and policy in Afghanistan.

First, with respect to selecting and building a cohesive team, Mr. Hastings reports:

While McChrystal and his men are in indisputable command of all military aspects of the war, there is no equivalent position on the diplomatic or political side. Instead, an assortment of administration players compete over the Afghan portfolio: US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, National Security Advisor Jim Jones and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not to mention 40 or so other coalition ambassadors and a host of talking heads who try to insert themselves in the mess, from John Kerry to John McCain. This diplomatic incoherence has effectively allowed McChrystal’s team to call the shots, and has hampered efforts to build a stable and credible government in Afghanistan.

As to presidential strategy and policy, choosing between the competing alternatives of counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism, Mr. Hastings is equally forthright and honest, reporting on Obama’s speech at West Point last fall:

The President laid out all the reasons why fighting the war in Afghanistan is a bad idea: It’s expensive, we’re in an economic crisis, a decade-long commitment would sap American power, Al Qaeda has shifted its base of operations to Pakistan. Then, without ever using the words “victory” or “win,” Obama announced that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, almost as many as McChrystal had requested. The President, however hesitantly, had thrown his weight behind the counterinsurgency crowd.

And thirdly, as far as the outcome to date of the Commander-in-Chief’s selected strategy, Mr. Hastings notes:

The President finds himself stuck in something even more insane than a quagmire: a quagmire he knowingly walked into, even though it’s precisely the kind of gigantic, mind-numbing, multigenerational nation-building project he explicitly said he did not want.

The roar over McChrystal’s comments notwithstanding, the real substance of Mr. Hastings’ reporting cuts directly to the core issue of American civil-military relations: whether the Commander-in-Chief and his senior military commanders can establish the mutual trust necessary to design and implement effective strategy and policies that can work on the ground.

Mr. Hastings is clearly not sanguine in that regard. Neither, I would submit, should we be: the buck stops with the Commander-in-Chief, not his subordinates.

Don M. Snider is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, West Point and, most recently, editor, with Suzanne Nielsen, of American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). The opinions expressed here are his own and not those of any government entity.