The Obama administration faces a crisis that has tested governments time and again: a general commanding a theater of operations who is not afraid to speak his mind or carve out his own direction. General Stanley McChrystal made his willingness to be that general abundantly clear via an interview with him and his staff recently published in Rolling Stone Magazine.
Whether or not the article fairly represents the views of McChrystal and his staff, for the Obama administration, Pandora’s Box has already been opened. The administration faces two immediate problems that it will have to resolve quickly if it wants to salvage any aspect of its Afghanistan policy: First, it must face the reality that Obama has precious little foreign policy or military experience and now its top general in a combat zone has affirmed his disdain for its resulting policy. Second, and perhaps more troubling, McChrystal has opened the door for at least high ranking military members to publicly disagree with the civilian leadership of the military, specifically with the commander-in-chief, during a time of conflict.
It is the second problem that too much of the media and too many Americans will fail to realize or will ignore. Americans tend to take it on faith that they have a civilian-led military that poses no threat to them or their nation because that military has not threatened for more than two hundred years. Yet, what most Americans do not understand is what kind of military they have today and how fragile its control can be.
Currently, less than 1 percent of all Americans serve in the military, and of that percentage, a significant portion of them are from multi-generational military families. Often, these military members serve with the fathers, brothers, and sons of the very people other members of their family served with. This generational military tradition builds a kind of camaraderie and esprit-de-corps that is found in few other organizations in the world.
While this phenomenon is not itself a threat, enter the current set of circumstances surrounding the Obama administration and McChrystal. Contrary to what too many Americans believe, the average military member is not some kind of barely literate poor kid who chose the military because he had no other choice. Many members of the military are well-educated and well informed, perhaps more so than the population at large. As a result, they know the administration’s policy in Afghanistan is shaky at best, which fact increasingly puts them in harms way, and now their commanding general has put a powerful voice to the things so many of them were thinking well before that article became public.
What hangs in the balance is how the administration deals with this discontent. History is full of examples of governments that have failed to understand the conflicts their militaries fought and the needs and opinions of the soldiers fighting them. If misunderstood and mismanaged for long enough, militiaries can become powerful political forces against their governments in and of themselves.
None of this is to suggest that the US Military is in any way disloyal or a threat. Rather, these facts stress that civilian management of a military must be effective, decisive, and continuous in order to be successful.
Which brings back into focus the two problems the Obama administration faces and what it must do. First, it needs to abandon its current strategy for one that will actually succeed in Afghanistan whether or not it succeeds in Washington or with the administration’s political base. If Obama’s advisors are at all smart, they will turn this debacle into an excuse to acknowledge the realities of the situation on the ground and to introduce a new strategy more in keeping with those realities.
Second, the administration has to replace McChrystal with someone less political and more reserved. This move may be extremely unpopular in certain circles, but it will serve to stem the tide of the forces McChrystal has unleashed, even if the administration cannot put the damage back in the box.
Dennis L Hitzeman served fifteen years in the United States Air Force- Ohio Air National Guard with multiple deployments including to Kuwait in support of Operations Enduring Freedom, Southern Watch, and Iraqi freedom, and Hurricane Katrina. He is also a third generation military veteran.