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The Presidents and the McGenerals

by Kenneth Weisbrode on Jun 25, 2010
The furor over comments made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his aides to a writer for Rolling Stone brings to mind earlier, infamous clashes between presidents and wartime commanders, both of them, curiously, of similar prefixes — Generals George McClellan and Douglas MacArthur.
Both were forced to stand down, but at great political cost to their presidents. McClellan, after Abraham Lincoln cashiered him, opposed Lincoln in the election of 1864 — unsuccessfully in the event. MacArthur returned home to cheering parades while Harry Truman’s popularity sank to all-time lows — from which, however, it later recovered to a degree.
Now that President Obama has relieved Gen. McChrystal of command in Afghanistan, it remains to be seen how both of these men and the mission they designed will fare.
History is likely to take into account much more than the two men’s personalities and actions. Their clash speaks to a larger issue, namely, the hopelessness of managing a global foreign policy militarily. How many more times will we ask the military to do the impossible?
As Gen. George C. Marshall, the great World War II chief of staff, once put it, if you assign a problem to the military to solve, don’t be surprised if you get a military solution.
The nation’s Founders never intended the country’s military forces to be global peacemakers or a foreign policy “tool” of first resort. The military’s deficiencies in this regard are especially apparent when warriors are given highly calculated and politically sensitive missions requiring delicacy and nuance.
The nation’s involvement in Afghanistan is a good example of this mismatch. That country’s politics are so complex as to seem unfathomable. Its terrain — physical, cultural and human — is well beyond difficult. And American and NATO resources — financial and political — are limited.
Yet many Americans still expect our soldiers not only to hunt down the enemies of the United States there but also to pacify the country sufficiently to justify a departure not far in the future.
America’s over-reliance on the military is the product of long-standing ambivalence. On the one hand, soldiering is among the most honored professions, certainly far more so than journalism, politics or even diplomacy.
On the other hand, Americans historically have been loath to see their generals get too political or to disregard the chain of command. Civilian control over the military remains sacred to many people.
Americans therefore turn to the military to get things done that others aren’t trusted to do. Yet the military too is constrained by training and tradition. Generals McClellan, MacArthur, and now McChrystal, all once considered to be brilliant military men, asserted themselves too much for their civilian bosses to stomach. Though the stakes were different for each one, each paid a high price for egotism.
History has not looked kindly upon the first two, whatever their achievements and reputations once were. Whether McChrystal meets the same fate depends as much on him and his successors as it does on the character of American power in the world. No matter what happens in Afghanistan, the civil-military problem is likely to be with us for as long as American power has so formidable a military component.

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009) and is a writer for the History News Service.