Gen. McChrystal Counters President Obama

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Gen. Stanley McChrystal said publicly that he would not support a pared-down counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. His comments put President Obama in a difficult position. Retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich explains whether or not McChrystal was out of line.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Civilian control of the military is among the central tenets of American government, a principle established on the day that General George Washington presented his resignation to Congress and reestablished, most memorably, on the day that President Harry Truman fired General Douglas McArthur.

The issue arises now after what was supposed to be a secret report on Afghanistan was leaked to the Washington Post, and then its author, General Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spoke in public and said he could not support a strategy that focused simply on counterterrorism in Afghanistan. Both the leak and general's speech put President Obama in a box as he continues to consider the options in Afghanistan.

We want to hear today from current and former members of the military. Did General McChrystal step outside the chain of command? Did he go too far? What's the appropriate way for senior commanders to influence policy? Our phone number is 800-9898-255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Retired Army colonel Andrew Bacevich joins us now from studios at Boston University, where he's a professor of history and international relations. He is the author of "The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy since World War II." And nice to have you with us back on the program.

Professor ANDREW BACEVICH (Author, "The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II."): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And let's stipulate for a moment. We're not talking about whether General McChrystal is right or wrong in his recommendations. Do you think he crossed the line?

Prof. BACEVICH: Oh, yes, I did. I think that his presentation in London was inappropriate, and he showed very bad judgment in suggesting that there was really no feasible alternative to his own plan.

CONAN: Which calls for, as we understand it, 40,000 more troops.

Prof. BACEVICH: Not only 40,000 more troops, but I think more importantly, as a matter of fact, his report says this - that the core issue is not the number of soldiers to be sent, the core issue is the approach to be taken to securing our interest in Afghanistan. The approach he advocates is counterinsurgency, and that's an approach that I think virtually everybody would acknowledge, whether they like the idea or not, which is going to lead to a very, very long war and a very costly war.

CONAN: And again, we're not debating his recommendations, per se, but the way he made them. And a lot of people have questions about the way this paper was presented. It was, well, delivered to the president of the United States. It was supposed to be confidential. And then, it's on the front page of the Washington Post, where the headline is, "Without these reinforcements, we're going to lose."

Prof. BACEVICH: Yeah. But, I mean, the truth is, we don't know who leaked the McChrystal reassessment. And so, it will be wrong for us to assume that it was McChrystal or somebody who, you know, is in McChrystal's camp. What we do know is that he made this presentation to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, of all places, not even in the United States. And that's where I think he crossed the line.

It's not General McChrystal's job or any general's job to determine or dictate policy. His job is to provide the best advice he can to the president and then permit the president to make the decisions, and McChrystal, then, implements those decisions.

CONAN: On Monday at a conference here in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed those comments made by commanding general in Afghanistan, that he needs more troops and would not support a counterterrorism strategy to get the job done.

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.

CONAN: And that appears, Andrew Bacevich, to be a very public message - General McChrystal, keep it zipped.

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I think so. And General James Jones, the national security adviser, made similar comments on one of the Sunday talk shows. And frankly, I think both Jones and Gates, their determination to draw a clear line about what generals should and should not do, I think that was a very healthy response and very heartening.

CONAN: We'd like to hear from listeners who are or were in the military on this. Did General McChrystal cross the line? 800-989-8255, email is talk@npr.org.

And Timothy is on the line. Timothy calling us from Virgil in South Dakota.

TIMOTHY (Caller): Yes, I'm retired military.

CONAN: Go ahead.

TIMOTHY: And I honestly believe that General McChrystal did the exact right thing. I have been a senior NCO who's had to deal with those young lieutenants who didn't know nothing. And there's a time you got to grab them by the ear and say this is how it's done.

General McChrystal is in a bad position simply because he's dealing with a president who's never worn a uniform, wouldn't know an M-4 from an M-16 on his best day. He had to give the president clear directives on what had to happen from his personal experience, from being on the ground and seeing what's going on.

CONAN: Did he have to do that in public, Timothy?

TIMOTHY: When the leak was made, which I do not believe in any way, shape or form he had anything to do with, when the leak was made, in my mind a line was drawn, and it was his time to stand up and say this is what has to happen.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich?

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, that's the recipe for military dictatorship. I mean, the president of the United States, whether or not he's worn a uniform or not - and I might mention, you know, Franklin Roosevelt never wore uniform - the president of the United States is not a second lieutenant who's wet behind the ears. He is, according to our constitution, the commander in chief. And as such, we owe him, serving officers owe him, the respect that will enable him to fulfill his office as commander in chief effectively.

If we have an officer corps that imagines that it has the prerogative and can exercise the prerogative of limiting the president's freedom of action, we're in deep trouble.

TIMOTHY: That's true. But the president does have the ability to fire him if he doesn't like it.

CONAN: If he doesn't like it, he has the ability to resign too and make his protest in civilian clothes.

TIMOTHY: It's very true. But the fact of the matter is, right now he is the only general we have that has the rank and the experience.

CONAN: Oh, there's always…

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, that's - I mean, but actually that's a very important point, that McChrystal is not the sole source of wisdom on this matter. I mean, there are others who have enormous experience. Secretary Gates would be one; Admiral Mullen; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is another; General Petraeus, the Central Command commander, is a third. So the notion that somehow McChrystal's views have to be seen as authoritative seems to me to be simply wrongheaded.

CONAN: Well, Timothy, I suspect we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this.

TIMOTHY: I agree with you there.

CONAN: Thanks very much…

TIMOTHY: Thanks so much for your time.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Thanks for the call.

TIMOTHY: Let's see, we go next to Sharon. Sharon with us from Jacksonville, North Carolina.

SHARON (Caller): Yes, I'm here.

CONAN: Go ahead, please. You're in the air.

SHARON: I just wanted to say that I think he did right too. I think that America is founded on the right to state your opinion, and he was not saying that his opinion was the only opinion. He was stating his opinion and his experience. And he did not offend the government or his service, so I don't understand what the big deal was. If it had come out the other way, probably nothing would have been said.

CONAN: Sharon, are you in the military?

SHARON: Yes.

CONAN: And what rank might you have?

SHARON: E-8.

CONAN: Okay. Again, Andrea Bacevich, if lower ranking members in the military - the United States military - we're not talking about the right of civilians to say anything they want - but in the military, start questioning their superior's judgment and indeed making their - limiting their options, as you say, he's now in political difficulties because of what General McChrystal had to say - that creates a big problem.

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I think so. I mean, an E-8 is a first sergeant or can be a first sergeant of a company. I suspect that in order to have good order and discipline within a company, we wouldn't want to have the first sergeant publicly questioning the decisions made by the company commander. And of course, in essence that's what we have at a much higher level.

I mean, the issue here, it seems to me, is that the president's military and civilian advisors owe him their best advice, as that clip from Secretary Gates said. But they also owe him the opportunity to actually choose, you know, to choose between course of action A and B and C.

Whether McChrystal intended it or not, what the effect of his presentation was to suggest that the president's choice was limited to the McChrystal plan or failure. And that really does a disservice not simply to the president, but it really does a disservice to the country.

CONAN: Sharon…

SHARON: I agree.

CONAN: I'm just going to ask: if you disagreed with a lieutenant's or a captain's orders, would you debate that in front of the privates?

SHARON: I guess it's if he were asking my advice, if my advice were solicited and on the table and I were sent to speak, and I were up and given the floor, then, yes. In my opinion it wasn't a debate. He wasn't in a debate with the president. He was stating his opinion of how things are, and that's not limiting the president's choices. He is the final authority. It is just stating his opinion. He didn't come out to say the president's wrong. The president doesn't know what's going on. He just said, this is how I feel about it.

CONAN: All right.

SHARON: It's very different. And yes, that is how it works. We're called into meetings and we do talk about many opportunities and options.

CONAN: Sharon, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

We're talking with Andrew Bacevich, a retired lieutenant colonel and the author of "The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security and Policy Since World War II," a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And I wonder, Andrew Bacevich, you've talked about, you know, proper role. How do we get from a relatively minor disagreement between a senior commander and the president, who actually hadn't said what is policy is yet, to fears of, well, military dictatorship?

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, I don't fear a military dictatorship because I think some of the views that we've just heard are not representative of either the way the military thinks or of behavior that the country would tolerate. Here's what I really think's going on here - and the issue relates back to Iraq.

In the latter part of the Iraq War, during that episode that we generally call the surge, General Petraeus, then the senior commander in Iraq, assumed a larger-than-life role and in many respects came to be in the eyes of people in Washington and across the country as somebody who actually spoke with more authority than President Bush itself. So he had this moment in which a senior officer transcended the limits of officership. And in that sense, Petraeus set a precedent, and we don't know what to make of that precedent.

So here we have General McChrystal, who in a sense has become the General Petraeus of Afghanistan, and yet he's - he actually doesn't command the same level of prestige. And we have General McChrystal saying things that the Petraeus might have said and nobody would have noticed. But we do notice. And so there's this question of exactly where - what are the limits, the boundaries of what senior officers are now able to say in a post-Petraeus era. And I think that the small controversy that McChrystal triggered is really representative of the effort or the need to redraw those boundaries and make clear what's appropriate for senior military commanders to say and to do, and what's inappropriate.

CONAN: Let's get Grant on the line. Grant calling from Fort Worth, Texas.

GRANT (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GRANT: I've really - I'll keep this brief. My sense of this is that, I'm an active duty officer, but really a leader has two responsibilities: give his opinion and insight when it's asked for, but to absolutely support his commander when the order is given. My bosses and I through my career have not necessarily seen eye to eye, but when I'm given an order, my soldiers know, you know, would - beyond a shadow of a doubt (unintelligible) that order.

CONAN: We have this email from Dan in Tulsa, who writes: General McChrystal was totally out of line. I spent 11 years in the Air Force. We were always taught to praise in public and criticize in private. The general should have spoken with the president in private and voiced his concerns then if granted permission by the president to make public statements in line with the president's policies and goals. Would you agree with that, Grant?

GRANT: I would. Yeah, absolutely, you know - criticize in private. But again, the guys who work for you need to know that you support the commander's decisions, his orders.

CONAN: Any doubt can lead to, well, terrible consequences. Grant, thanks very much for calling.

And finally, Andrew Bacevich, we just have a minute or so left. But there's been some criticism that by shutting down General McChrystal and the statements that we heard from Secretary of Defense Gates, and you mentioned from General Jones, the president is in fact muzzling his senior officers.

Prof. BACEVICH: Well, gosh, if - I don't know General McChrystal and wouldn't presume to judge his character. But I have to say if sort of having his hand slapped is going to cause him to go sulk in the corner and to refrain from offering his candid and honest advice, then we've picked the wrong guy to be our commander in Afghanistan.

Frankly, I fully expect that in the deliberations that are happening within the White House and among the senior leaders that he will speak candidly. I just hope that he will refrain from speaking as publicly and as inappropriately as he did in his London speech.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. BACEVICH: Thank you.

CONAN: Andrew Bacevich, retired as a lieutenant colonel. Now he's a professor history and international relations at Boston University. He's also the author of "The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II."

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