Changing commanders in the middle of a war is never easy. Lincoln fired lethargic General McClellan and appointed Grant to command the Army of the Potomac. The troops were not happy with the change. Truman fired General MacArthur, and conservatives hammered him for it.
Now Obama has fired McChrystal, and he will almost certainly pay a price. Obama’s critics will claim that his field commander knew better than he did, and that McChrystal was fired because Obama couldn’t handle the truth. Obama shouldn’t worry. Lincoln and Truman survived, and fared better in the history books than the would-be warlords they dismissed. In the end, Americans would rather have a strong president than a good general.
The fact is that good or bad, generals are replaceable. That is how the military is designed. If a commander falls, another takes his place, with the same training and knowledge as his predecessor, and likely to use many of the same strategies and tactics.
But there is only one President. He, too, is replaceable, or at least every four years. Yet during those four years, our nation invests him with enormous power, prestige and responsibility. A weak President – or a President perceived as weak – has domestic and foreign consequences that extend far beyond a war in a remote Asian nation. We can’t say for sure that Petraeus will be a better or worse commander than McChrystal (though he will certainly be more discreet). But we can that a Commander-in-Chief who meekly accepts ridicule from his generals does not deserve the title and will not command the respect that his office demands. In a world of Al Qaeda and the Iranian bomb, we can’t afford a Cuckold-in-Chief.
Generals frequently tend to be more popular than presidents. They appear stronger, more purposeful, more competent. But they have the luxury of only focusing on war, on killing the enemy or capturing ground. Presidents, whether they want to or not, must deal with the big picture.
It’s important to have good generals. We have had some poor ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we still paying the price a decade later. But whether the general’s name is McChrystal or Petraeus will make little difference. The Afghan war rests on a strategy that we have chosen for better or worse, and the ultimate bearer of responsibility for that strategy is one Barack Obama.