Sunday, October 04, 2009

Memo to General McChrystal

Last week, General Stanley McChrystal, our top officer in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying that he could not support a scaled-down American effort that would focus on hunting down al Qaeda operatives with missiles and special forces troops.

Memo to General McChrystal: When the President, the Commander-in-Chief, says: "Jump," your only response is, "Yes, sir. How high?"

George W. Bush greatly overstated the commander-in-chief's responsibilities and authority, but we do have civilian control over the military and that ought to mean that serving officers make their views known freely to the President and the Secretary of Defense, but that they not speak their personal views about military issues to the public at large. Indeed, even their communications with Congress concerning defense policy should be heavily circumscribed.

There has been a regrettable tendency for high-ranking officers to speak out on matters that should be kept in the chain of command. Testimony before Congress, interviews and speeches such as General McChrystal's last week have become means for commanders to influence defense policy. That may sometimes be seen as a victory for democracy, but it is inimical to a rational command structure and, by undercutting presidential authority, gives the military more power than it should have. That may be a hard argument for liberals to support after eight years of George W. Bush, but it the problem there was not the command structure but the American people's choice (well, the Supreme Court's choice in 2000) for President.

If President Obama decides--as he should--to cut back or at least not increase the number of troops in Afghanistan, General McChrystal's option is to resign. Then, once he is a civilian, he can criticize the administration to his heart's content. I hope that's one of the messages that the President delivered to the General when the two of them met on Air Force One on Thursday.

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