Question Of The Day: Will He Stay Or Will He Go ?

There's really only one story in Washington, D.C. today, and Stanley McChrystal is the star player.

Within the hour, General Stanley McChrystal will begin what is probably the most difficult non-combat day of his military career and he seems to clearly understand that his neck is on the line:

During his round of phone calls to top officials of the Obama administration whom he and his team disparaged to a Rolling Stone reporter, Gen. Stanley McChrystal said, “I’ve compromised the mission,” a senior administration source tells ABC News.

Whether he did so irrevocably is at the top of the agenda in his Oval Office meeting with President Obama this morning. The president will press him as to what he was thinking and whether he still has the ability to serve as commander of 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan after making remarks about the president and his national security team that the general could use to justifiably fire any of his underlings if they were made about him.

“He’ll have to have some pretty good answers to some tough questions,” a senior White House official tells ABC News.

McChrystal will have a legitimate opportunity to make his case to keep his job, officials said.

Officials described the reaction within the West Wing as immediate anger and certainly that McChrystal be fired, followed by a willingness to hear the counterargument given the importance of the war, its perilous state, the fact that the story revealed no policy disagreements, how closely tied McChrystal is with the current strategy, and the fact that Gen. David McKiernan was dismissed from the same job last Summer.

In the last twenty-four hours, a wide range of voices have spoken up regarding their opinion of what the President should do in this situation. The Afghan government, for example, is expressing concern that replacing McChrystal at this point would endanger the success of a military policy that he pretty much drafted himself, and there are some here in the U.S. raising the same concern. In today’s Wall Street Journal, though, Eliot Cohen argues that President Obama doesn’t really have a choice, McChrystal must go:

Gen. McChrystal’s just-published interview in Rolling Stone magazine is an appalling violation of norms of civilian-military relations. To read it is to wince, repeatedly—at the mockery of the vice president and the president’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, at the sniping directed toward the U.S. ambassador, at a member of his staff who, when asked whom the general was having dinner with in Paris said, “Some French minister. It’s so [expletive deleted] gay.” The quotes from Gen. McChrystal’s underlings bespeak a staff so clueless, swaggering and out of control that a wholesale purge looks to be indicated


There is, however, a more fundamental issue: military deference to civilian authority. It is intolerable for officers to publicly criticize or mock senior political figures, including the vice president or the ambassador (who is, after all, the president’s personal representative to a foreign government). It is intolerable for them to publicly ridicule allies. And quite apart from his own indiscretions, it is the job of a commanding general to set a tone that makes such behavior unacceptable on the part of his subordinates.

After Gen. McChrystal’s understandable but somewhat impolitic address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies last fall, the message from Washington was clear: Stay mum. In this business one deserves one mistake—and this second mistake is far, far worse than the first.

I agree with Cohen, McChrystal has to go. At some point this afternoon I expect the announcement to be made.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. just me says:

    I think he goes.

    I don’t see how Obama keeps him.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I respectfully disagree with you on this, Doug. As I posted over at my place this morning the comparison with Truman and MacArthur is not apt. Gen. MacChrystal’s intemperance and lack of deference doesn’t threaten civilian control, which IMO is a valid reason to fire a general. Pricking a few civilian egos is not.

    President Obama campaigned on a strategy of increased troop strength and counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. Unless he’s ready to change that he should retain McChrystal. For the record: I oppose a strategy of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. But if you want to practice COIN there, by all accounts McChrystal’s as good as it gets.

    A better question might be if Eikenberry and/or Holbrooke should be fired.

  3. It’s not MacArtthur/Truman, perhaps but it comes pretty close to being Lincoln/McClellan.

    And it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time that McChrystal has challenged the civilian leadership.

    Last summer, his report to the JCS regarding future plans in Afghanistan, which was supposed to have remained confidential, was leaked to the press. The fact that McChrystal spent the next several months very publicly lobbying for his troop increase request is at least circumstantial evidence that someone close to him was involved in the leak.

    Last December, he publicly called out the Vice-President for proposing an alternate plan.

    Then this.

    As one military analyst on Fox said last night, officers in McChrystal’s position usually only get one chance to make a mistake like this. He’s gotten his pass already.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    It’s not MacArtthur/Truman, perhaps but it comes pretty close to being Lincoln/McClellan.

    Exactly. Lincoln didn’t fire McClellan for insulting him; he’d done that for years. He fired him for not producing.

  5. Lincoln didn’t fire McClellan for insulting him; he’d done that for years. He fired him for not producing.

    Well, part of the reason for that is that Lincoln didn’t exactly have a lot of options out there besides McClellan at the time. Grant and Sherman hadn’t proven themselves yet, and the other Generals in the East were far from top tier

  6. steve says:

    Uhh, Mattis is available if he will take it. McChrytal’s priors are important, but there has also been an overall trend, I believe, for officers becoming more politicized. The principle here is that an officer can speak with contempt, that is the UCMJ word, about the civilians in control and suffer no consequences.


  7. PD Shaw says:

    Another historical example was U.S. Grant. After the fiasco at Shiloh, it was widely reported in the media that Grant was drunk at the time and as a result his men were bayonetted while they slept in their tents. (He had previously been discharged from his earlier military career for drinking on duty) The press was calling for Grant’s ouster and Lincoln’s response was that “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

    Lincoln was very utilitarian in all of his decisions, which is what I hope Obama is.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    steve, looking at the definition of contempt provided by Fred Kaplan, the only contemptuous statement I saw was the aide who called Jones a “clown,” and the NSA is not protected from contempt under the USMJ.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    I already placed my bet yesterday in a different thread. Obama is very secure. He’s also very focused on his goals. I think Obama wants to stay with his current strategy. So for my money he keeps McChrystal.