Was McChrystal Wrong To Advise Obama Publicly?

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan has made a public case for sending more American troops to fight there. Is Gen. Stanley McChrystal out of line? Should he be making his case through the chain of command? Or is it appropriate to have a debate with the White House in public?

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We're going to look this morning at the way the White House makes decisions about war. In the end, the big choices belong to one man in the Oval Office, but many others have a voice. In a moment, we'll hear about a key advisor on Vietnam and how a president ignored him. First, we'll hear about an advisor on Afghanistan. NPR's Tom Bowman has a story that raises the question of when a general should take his advice public.

TOM BOWMAN: General Stanley McChrystal did go public with his advice in a speech in London last week. The general believes more troops are needed to protect the Afghan people. He was asked about another approach to the war. Why not drop bombs from drone aircraft and not send more troops?

General STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL (Commander, U.S. and NATO Forces, Afghanistan): That's a very fair question. We've spent awful lot of time on it, and the short, glib answer is no.

BOWMAN: That's where the general got into trouble. That strategy of using drones is being pushed by some in Washington, including Vice President Joe Biden. Biden also wants a smaller American troop presence in Afghanistan. Whatever General McChrystal meant, it sounded to some as if he was shooting down the vice president's idea and pushing his own view that Afghanistan must be rebuilt.

Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short sighted strategy.

BOWMAN: Short sighted strategy: The critics say that crossed the line. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote that the general should, as he put it, shut up and salute. Yale law Professor Bruce Ackerman says that McChrystal has no business making such public pronouncements.

Professor BRUCE ACKERMAN (Law, Yale University): It's a mistake for an active general to create the appearance, even the appearance that his compliance with the ultimate political decision is in question.

BOWMAN: Then there's another critic who happens to work for the White House. National Security Advisor James Jones, himself a retired Marine general, was asked whether McChrystal was out of line.

Mr. JAMES JONES (National Security Advisor; Retired General, U.S. Marines): Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.

BOWMAN: Officials say no one in Washington saw McChrystal's speech before he gave it, but those close to the general deny he was publicly pushing any position. And throughout the London speech, the general made clear that he respects the chain of command.

Gen. MCCHRYSTAL: I'm going to get the opportunity to speak my mind absolutely bluntly to provide my analysis without any influence and then to have decision makers put that into the wider context - which they have - to make a decision. You know, that's sacred.

Major General ROBERT SCALES (U.S. Army, Retired; Military Historian): This is a terrific case study in civil/military relations.

BOWMAN: That's retired Major General Robert Scales. He is a military historian. He says what McChrystal did is not that unusual. Generals have publicly outlined their views in the past, even before a president decided on a policy. During World War II, General George Marshall advocated defeating Germany first before Japan. During the first Gulf War, General Colin Powell called for using what he called overwhelming force to defeat Saddam Hussein. General Scales.

Maj. Gen. SCALES: Do you want your senior commanders to remain completely mute while strategies of this consequence are being developed, or do you want them to offer their opinions?

BOWMAN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates, McChrystal's boss, gave his answer to that question yesterday.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations - civilians and military alike - provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately.

BOWMAN: Opinions, yes, but in public? That's today's controversy. But everyone in the military agrees on one point. Once the president decides, an officer has two choices: salute and carry it out or resign.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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