On balance the president made the right decision-and two things about the statement make me more confident of this than I would otherwise have been.
First, David Petraeus is a smart choice as McChrystal’s replacement (though I suspect I was not alone in watching the general for signs that he might faint during Obama’s statement: imagine if that had happened). “Demoting” McChrystal’s old boss into the most important job in the armed forces is one of those things that seemed obvious the second it was announced, but not before. Nobody else would be capable of so seamless a transition. Petraeus, for the moment, helps stifle the suspicion that the whole strategy is coming apart.
Of course, the strategy may in fact be coming apart. But that’s another question. For now I’m focusing on the decision about McChrystal.
Second, the statement itself showed Obama at his most impressive. What a contrast with the Oval Office broadcast on the Gulf. He seemed decisive, determined, full of resolve. Above all, he was asserting himself as commander in chief. This is what taking charge looks like. Yesterday, commenting on the McChrystal scandal, I said that Obama would lose however he responded. Perhaps it will look that way in time, if the war keeps going badly and McChrystal’s leadership is missed on the ground. Right now, though, the episode has done Obama a favour. For the first time in a while, he looked the part.
I still have a lot of sympathy for the departing general. The chorus of outrage as usual includes a fair measure of hypocrisy. The case for firing him was strong, no question, for all the reasons Obama stated: what McChrystal and his aides said does call their judgment into question, and would have made relationships with civilian officials even more difficult than they were already. However, a distinction does need to be made between public insubordination and private ribaldry among comrades, of the sort that Dilberts in every office in the world ought to recognise.
What the general and (especially) his aides said in the Rolling Stone profile was public, and they should have known it: a reporter was there, for heaven’s sake. But plainly this was not on their minds. The reporter had receded into the background. They relaxed. They trusted him not to embarrass them-or else just didn’t think about it.
Sadly, trusting or failing to notice a journalist is often a firing offence. But this was not the same thing as calculated open defiance: “Here is what I think of the idiots in charge, and I want everybody to know it.” It is a distinction that a lot of people seem content to ignore. McChrystal probably had to go-and Obama’s disposal of the problem was most impressive. But check your emails, my friends; recall your private conversations. Anything you would wish your boss or your co-workers not to know?