Obama has free rein to act on McChrystal, but system is still complex

President Obama removes McChrystal as commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan on Wednesday after remarks he made in a magazine interview about top administration officials.
By Anne E. Kornblut and Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Constitution spells it out clearly: Civilians are in control of the military, with one in particular deemed the "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States."

In reality, the relationship has never been that straightforward. And the complexity was even greater for Barack Obama, who had never served in the military and had been elected in no small measure on the fact that he had promised to extract the country from his predecessor's war.

Now, 17 months after assuming the role of commander in chief, Obama finds himself facing a particular test of that balance between control and deference with the publication of a magazine profile in which his top commander in Afghanistan, and those who surround him, showed disrespect for the president and his top civilian advisers.

In deciding the fate of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, Obama must assert authority over the military without alienating it or fueling skepticism about his own fitness as its commander.

In 2008, Obama's election over someone with Sen. John McCain's war record was a political and generational turning point. Obama was the third president in a row not to have seen combat, and to have beaten someone who had. The country, it was said, had moved past military service as a credential.

Maintaining that confidence, however, required a good deal of compensation on Obama's part for what was lacking in his own background.

Eager to avoid the tensions with the military, or the accusations of weakness on national security that have often beset Democrats, Obama installed men with military credentials in critical civilian jobs. He hired a retired general as his national security adviser, and kept George W. Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates. And after conducting a review of his Afghanistan policy -- one that took so long that former vice president Richard B. Cheney accused him of "dithering" -- Obama sided with military leaders late last year and opted for a surge in troops.

By doing so, he also sent a signal that he put a special faith in the soundness of their judgment -- and by implication, that Americans should, too.

For all his stated commitment to diplomacy, Obama also proved to be aggressive in prosecuting the secret war against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He expanded the number of special forces, the scope of their deployments, and the amount of resources devoted to them. He also intensified the unmanned drone attacks in western Pakistan.

But Obama's decision on McChrystal comes as the mission that he has often described as his government's most important national security effort is in question.

Violence in Afghanistan is on the rise, and the strategy to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda is not showing the progress that had been hoped. Recently, one official said, the outlook -- and particularly the timetable -- have become "blurred," as lawmakers and military officials have sent mixed messages about whether troops will really begin to withdraw next year as promised.

Handled right, White House officials said, there may actually be opportunity in this moment. McChrystal's participation in the Rolling Stone profile -- whether viewed as simply a gaffe or insubordination -- could provide a political opening for Obama, giving him a chance to explain his Afghanistan policy to an increasingly wary public.

Inevitably, however, the decision will also fall into a larger storyline about Obama's leadership, one that will include his struggles to assert something that resembles control over a raging environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Another question is whether it will aggravate the stresses that have existed all along in Obama's relationship with the military -- including with his own national security team.

Last month, his director of national intelligence, retired U.S. Adm. Dennis C. Blair, was forced from the post after a string of disagreements, setting the intelligence community on edge. James L. Jones has had a rocky tenure as national security adviser and is expected to leave at the end of the year.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, now the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, has struggled in that civilian position -- in large part because of his clashes with McChrystal, whose job as head of the allied forces in the region Eikenberry once held.

Of course, if a strategy is sound, it should follow that no official is irreplaceable. Deciding whether to send a wayward general packing is one way to show where the power really rests in the relationship between the military and its commander in chief.

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