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Obama’s MacArthur Moment

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama sacked the general implementing his counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, on the heels of unflattering remarks the military leader and his aides made about the commander-in-chief’s national security team in a recently published Rolling Stone article. McChrystal flew in from Afghanistan and arrived in Washington yesterday morning with his tail between his legs, as he offered Obama his mea culpa and tendered his resignation. Shortly after, surrounded by the country’s military leadership and his Cabinet in the Rose Garden, the president announced the general’s replacement, the highly respected David Petraeus, whose surge strategy brought Iraq back from the brink, and declared that while he “welcome[s] debate, [he] won’t tolerate division.”

President Barack Obama announcing McChrystal's sacking.

While Obama went to lengths to assure the public that the firing was “a change in personnel, but … not a change in policy,” the situation nonetheless echoed the events of an earlier age, namely, when President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command during the Korean War. In that conflict, which was one of the bloodiest skirmishes of the Cold War, the commander-in-chief and his subordinate had a genuine disagreement about policy, with the general publicly advocating the abandonment of the Truman Doctrine and pushing for the invasion of China, while his boss sought to prevent the Cold War from turning hot. When MacArthur — who I happen to believe was right — refused to carry out Truman’s orders he was fired.

While Truman’s policy of containment may have prolonged the Cold War, and though the general may have been correct in his convictions, the president’s decision to fire MacArthur was unmistakably right. From time to time, this country’s armed forces need to be reminded that America’s defense policy is under civilian control and that we are not run by a military junta where generals run the show. Ultimately, while the military leadership does possess a voice on matters of defense and national security; in a democracy, final say must rest with the commander-in-chief elected by the people.

US President Harry Truman with General Douglas MacArthur, who he would later fire for insubordination.

Men in uniform must respect the limits the Constitution places on them for the American experiment to survive. We have had many presidents with distinguished military careers; from Grant, to Theodore Roosevelt, to Eisenhower, and to George H.W. Bush. And all of them knew that they could not wear their military uniform while in the White House. The sacking of insubordinate generals predates Truman and stretches back to Lincoln’s firing of McClellan during the Civil War. In the end, as McChrystal learned the hard way, it is the general’s job to implement strategy, not to make it or gripe about those formulating it.


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