I wonder whether General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has forgotten the one chapter in the annals of history that deals with the firing of General Douglas McArthur by President Harry Truman in 1951. Although MacArthur was one of the best-known and admired military leaders of World War II, he lost his position for repeatedly going public to voice his disagreement with the president’s Korea and China policy.
In public appearances of his choice, McChrystal has forcefully lobbied and pressured the White House and Defense Department to embrace his new strategy for winning in Afghanistan without time consuming deliberation. Obviously, the timely leak of his 66-page assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and the request for significantly more troops were part of his public offensive.
To be sure, generals should speak their mind, when it comes to the conduct of war or other military questions and issues. But they should do so within the military chain of command and in private meetings with both military and civilian leaders in Washington.
More recently, top military leaders have been criticized for not standing up to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his team during the planning of the Iraq invasion and for not insisting on far more troops for the post-invasion phase in their dealings with the civilian leaders in the Pentagon and White House. The only one who did speak out, General Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, was eventually forced into retirement. But unlike McChrystal now, Shinseki did not leak his written assessments on Iraq War planning or lobbied in favor of his position in public appearances of his choice. On one occasion, he answered questions during his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee. That was the beginning of the end of his military career.
Had McChrystal simply given his strong views during a Senate hearing and in response to Senators’ questions, there would not be any reason to criticize him. But in view of his going public approach, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was right, when he said that both civilian and military leaders must "provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately.” And emphasizing that he was speaking for the Department of Defense, Gates said, “once the commander in chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.”
That is the way it must be in this democracy.