Crisis Management 101

Obama’s pitch-perfect handling of the McChrystal affair.

Also in Slate, Fred Kaplan writes that naming Gen. David Petraeus to replace McChrystal is a “stroke of brilliance.”

The presidency should come with a neck brace. Two days ago, Barack Obama was struggling to stay on top of the oil spill in the Gulf while simultaneously trying to do something (anything) about the anemic economy, pitch a new energy initiative, and kick-start the selling of health care reform. Then, out of the blue, another crisis: In less than 48 hours, Obama had to reassess his Afghanistan strategy, its military leader, and the entire civilian-military relationship.

It was a test—more of a pop quiz, really—of Obama’s leadership skills. He had to push back against the dismissive and derisive attitude shown by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his men toward the civilian command in an article published in Rolling Stone. At the same time, he had to be careful not to sap military morale or undermine the policy that he still supports in Afghanistan. He aced it.

In his Rose Garden statement Wednesday, the president was resolute and commanding—two qualities that critics have been looking for in his management of the Gulf oil crisis. The difference is that, on this issue, Obama is in complete control: He is, after all, the commander in chief.

But the president also showed some consideration—praising McChrystal and explaining his firing in context. While he and McChrystal agreed on the strategy in Afghanistan, a larger principle was at issue. “War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president,” Obama said. McChrystal’s conduct “did not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,” undermines civilian control of the armed forces, and threatens the mission. With his careful, lawyerly explanation, Obama did not appear to be a man acting in a fit of pique.

Obama was also careful to explain the more immediate principle at stake: “This is a change in personnel, not in policy,” said the president in a line that sounded like empty rhetoric but wasn’t. By picking Gen. David Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement, Obama was doubling down on the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. The tough, ugly, and painstaking business of winning the population will continue, as will the stories about how hard that is on the troops being asked to carry it out. (It also means the tension between the military and the current ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, also remains.)

The neck brace for the presidency might also help its occupants with the ideological swivel they sometimes have to make. Petraeus, now the president’s savior, was the architect of the strategy Obama once denounced when he was a senator and President Bush was hoping Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy would turn things around in Iraq. If Petraeus can do for Afghanistan what he did for Iraq, people will no doubt call for handing him the presidency (for now, Petraeus will be too busy to flirt with a run in 2012).

The president’s view was that McChrystal had used up his third strike. Before the latest Rolling Stone story, he had criticized Vice President Joe Biden in a speech in London while the Afghanistan review was under way. The White House also blames him for leaking his classified review. (Pentagon officials argue strenuously that there’s no evidence for this second charge.)

The question for the president now is how much of the McChrystal business will continue to be litigated in the coming months. The tit-for-tat between the military and the White House that was at the heart of the damaging article has been going on since before the Afghanistan policy was announced. Now there’s a new chapter. How many in the military will see McChrystal’s departure as an overreaction to some stupid words rather than a necessary act of civilian command? McChrystal and his aides never did challenge civilian authority, after all.

The president called for that bickering to end: “[N]ow is the time for all of us to come together,” he said, vowing that “while I welcome debate …  I won’t tolerate division.” It may be that this controversy will linger for a few more days. But if those orders get through, Obama will be free to move on to tomorrow’s head-snapping dilemma.

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