McChrystal and Obama – Perception is Reality or Perception Reflects Reality?
Posted on October 6, 2009
It is not a little disturbing to me that I am referencing Richard Cohen twice in one week, but it’s only fair to note that his column (Does Obama Have the Backbone?) crystallized a serious problem. Much of the recent Beltway chatter has been devoted to a public division between the president and his hand-picked commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. We know that in politics, perception is often reality. The more alarming issue is whether, in this case, perception merely reflects reality. Either way, the president needs to address the problem.
Richard Cohen describes McChrystal’s public statements as “MacArthuresque,” calling for a “Trumanesque” response. The ‘-esque’ is important as a level of seriousness, but the main point is the same. It is dangerous and wholly unacceptable when the ultimate authority in the military is unclear. Today, many have parsed the general’s words to find that he really didn’t openly challenge the president. That probably cannot be said for his description of VP Biden’s alternative plan as “short-sighted.” The details, however, don’t really matter from a communications standpoint.
Here’s what the American people and the world know about the situation: The top commander in Afghanistan has publicly said he needs more troops to fight the war. The president hasn’t decided what to do and doesn’t seem to know what he wants. We’ve seen one photo of the president and the general. If one didn’t know who they were, it would appear that a guy in the white shirt and tie is asking for permission or advice from a patient military officer. That doesn’t make Obama look thoughtful, nor does it conjure visions of JFK. I won’t go as far to say ‘Dukakis,’ but I will murmur ‘Carter.’
There’s no doubt that Defense Secretary Gates is right about the need for military commanders to be candid with their civilian bosses. And it’s refreshing that President Obama appears to welcome their candor. The problem is, at minimum, one of vital public perception. People feel unsafe when the person in charge doesn’t act like he’s in charge.
It also weakens the president in the eyes of allies. The London Telegraph announced that Obama was “furious” at McChrystal. “Furious” implies “powerless.” As Cohen alludes, Truman may have been angry at the legendary and wildly popular MacArthur, but the Washington Post headline left no doubt about who was in charge, stating plainly that “Truman Fires M’Arthur.”
The Commander-in-Chief probably doesn’t need to cashier his general– perhaps some key staff — but not McChrystal. He does need to give the American people, and the world, the impression that 1) he is in charge and 2) he knows what to do. It’s not about Bushian swagger. It’s about the authority and confidence which are fair expectations from those who made Barack Obama the most powerful person on Earth.