What to do about McChrystal

WHAT TO DO ABOUT MCCHRYSTAL…. The question of the day, at least at first, was, “What on earth was Gen. Stanley McChrystal thinking when he and his team took derisive potshots at so many top U.S. leaders?” It wasn’t long, though, before that question was replaced with, “What on earth is President Obama going to do about it?”

It’s tempting to think this is a Truman/MacArthur* kind of moment, and the president doesn’t have a choice but to replace the top U.S. general in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s ties to top officials were strained before, and now they may be irreparably damaged.

Spencer Ackerman emphasizes, however, that there are risks associated with Obama firing the general.

There’s only a year to go before the July 2011 date to begin the transition to Afghan security responsibility and the Kandahar tide is starting to rise. It’ll be hard to fire McChrystal without ripping the entire Afghanistan strategy up, and I’ve gotten no indication from the White House that it’s interested in doing that. On the other hand, if senior administration officials are and I just haven’t picked up on it, McChrystal just gave them their biggest opportunity.

It’s possible, as L.B. noted this morning, that McChrystal sees his strategy failing, and is trying to be relieved for insubordination, but reports suggest the general really is scrambling and wants to keep his job. The burden, of course, will fall on him to prove to the White House that he is the leader to be trusted to execute Obama’s strategy, and given the Rolling Stone piece, that hurdle will be tough to clear.

But when push comes to shove, it’s yet another tough call for the president — he probably should fire McChrystal, but he probably doesn’t want to.

What Obama prefers to do is stick to his current plan, and begin a phased transition in Afghanistan in just 12 months. If McChrystal is sacked, it means a shift in strategy, likely delays in the broader timetable, and more perilous conditions on the ground. If McChrystal is allowed to stay, the larger plan remains in place, but with a weakened general and frayed lines of trust between the White House and the commander of U.S. and NATO forces.

If Obama keeps McChrystal at his post, the president runs the risk of losing face, and weakening his position as Commander in Chief. If Obama fires McChrystal, the president’s own war policy is at risk, and a delicate moment in Afghanistan could deteriorate.

For what it’s worth, if either side is looking for possible face-saving caveats, the most insulting quotes in the Rolling Stone article came not from McChrystal, but from his aides. For that matter, the potshots aren’t substantive: “All the criticisms — of Eikenberry, of Jones, of Holbrooke, of Biden — are actually just immature and arrogant snipes at how annoying Team America (what, apparently, McChrystal’s crew calls itself) finds them.”

Could this angle be used to smooth things over tomorrow at the White House? I don’t know; I’m just throwing it out there. This mess may be too severe to be cleaned up.

* fixed