The general interest in healthy civil-military relations in the United States is more important than the outcome of the war in Afghanistan. Even were McChrystal absolutely critical to that effort (and that effort absolutely critical to the security of US values and interests) Obama would be well advised to cut the general loose. In this case, the individual importance of McChrystal and the overall importance of the war effort are both in question. McChrystal’s sins have not risen to the Douglas MacArthur level, but the comments by his aides do appear to reflect a general contempt not only for the civilian leadership of the United States but also for the doctrinal principles that McChrystal himself advocates. This raises grave questions about his command.
To put this in terms of the ongoing “executive power” debate, Obama faces a relatively easy task. McChrystal has apparently already offered his resignation. The legal ability of the President to cashier commanders is without serious question. Conservatives have, if anything, been faster than liberals to call for McChrystal’s ouster. Furthermore, McChrystal represents one faction in a bitter dispute within the US Army; although I tend to find more points of agreement with McChrystal’s faction than its oppposite, it’s unclear that the institution as a whole would terribly resent his replacement.
UltimaRatioReg is right (never did I expect to write those words) in suggesting that civil-military relations are always messier than the Huntington model; senior military officers will play a role in the public debate over strategy and doctrine even in healthy democracies. Although I think that some of McChrystal’s earlier advocacy approached the “neutral zone” between civilian and military roles, I don’t believe that he crossed the line. Senior officers cannot, however, countenance or enable open contempt in the ranks for the civilian leadership.