Saying what we all think

One great thing about a newspaper column is I can criticize Barack Obama without jeopardizing my position and creating a spectacle of public humiliation. In this I do not resemble Lt.-Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

As in many other things, you may retort. Gen. McChrystal is a rock-hard warrior whose steely blue eyes drill right through you. Mine are the exact shade of brown that mystery- and action-story authors never allot to their heroes. When the general enters a room all heads swing toward him. When I do so the door swings. And when he was appointed commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the National Post reported that he only ate one meal a day "to avoid feeling sluggish". I operate under no such restriction. But it is the first difference that matters here.

Much as I despise Barack Obama, he clearly had to relieve Gen. McChrystal for his idiotic words. But he had to do it properly. Once the general's staff had openly derided "the wimps in the White House" the only way to contain the damage was for them not to live up to the characterization. And they couldn't, for the obvious reason that it was accurate.

Consider the revealing babble by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs that "There has clearly been an enormous mistake in judgment that he will have to answer to" and "The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking."

Yes, Gen. McChrystal made an error of judgment in allowing his views to be made public. But he was called to the White House to answer for the views, not their public expression. Moreover, it was blazingly obvious what he was thinking; his words left nothing to the imagination. It was equally obvious that he was not thinking: No former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (which oversees the Delta Force, Navy Seals and such) could fail to sense danger in allowing Rolling Stone to follow him around, record the profanity-laced commentary of his staff and print the result unless his brain was completely AWOL.

The most disturbing part of the White House reaction is that President Obama, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, repeated the psychobabble charge of "poor judgment." What the general showed, unmistakably, was insubordination. But the president's first instinct was not a severe yet dignified reproach. It was a big dollop of lukewarm PR pablum: "Whatever decision that I make with respect to Gen. McChrystal, or any other aspect of Afghan policy, is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there, and that ultimately makes this country safer." He needed focused outrage at insolence toward the office of Commander in Chief, not soothing vacuity.

Harry Truman once commented that when he encountered insubordination from Douglas MacArthur over the Korean War, "I was ready to kick him into the North China Sea." It would probably have been as unsafe to try to propel MacArthur into a large body of water with your foot as to perform the operation on Stanley McChrystal. But I'll bet Truman would have made a creditable attempt. Not Barack Obama.

"No drama Obama" is increasingly clearly in the wrong chair as Commander in Chief. Which is very troubling not just for the president but for his country and, therefore, for its allies. If he had not fired Gen. McChrystal it would have given free rein to widespread contempt for the president and his ilk within the military. But firing him will only deepen that contempt unless he now takes decisive action in Afghanistan, a war he doesn't know how to win but doesn't dare lose. And he's already over a barrel with his new commander whether David Petraeus's appointment is interim or permanent.

The problem is that whoever he now picks can dictate strategy and insist on its public endorsement. The president can't say no to such demands, because should anyone decline or resign the Afghan command, no matter how decorously, everyone will know senior generals are unwilling to try to win a war on behalf of an administration that considers it more important to give radicals control of the global gender agenda than to defend friends in Israel and crush foes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everyone. At home and abroad. Which means the president must also back his new commander even if the Afghan war strategy goes badly wrong. No amount of schadenfreude at the discomfiture of the wimps in the White House can compensate me for how much more likely this episode makes failure in Afghanistan. And it is Gen. McChrystal's fault for not keeping his big steaming yap shut.

I think more or less the way McChrystal does, without all the obscenities. But I can say it. He couldn't.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson