“Masters and Commanders” Gives Insight on Obama and McChrystal

Andrew Roberts’ magnificent study of command relationships in World War II, Masters and Commanders, should be required reading for anyone responsible for the care and feeding of great minds and enormous egos. It is the story of two great political leaders, President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the two military commanders, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke. These four men mobilized half a world, devised the strategy, developed the campaign plans and directed the operations that won World War II. While there was plenty of friction between the two sets of masters and commanders as well as across the Atlantic what is remarkable is how well these four titans managed to work together. Each was exceptionally tough-willed and strong minded. Each believed that he knew best how to win the war. Yet each knew that he had to work with the others in order to win the war. Each also knew that while they might disagree as to the means needed to accomplish the ends, they were united as to the validity of the ends themselves. Between them, these four directed the actions of equally strong willed, opinionated and sometimes even narcissistic subordinates of the likes of MacArthur, King, Stillwell, Eisenhower, Chennault, Patton, Clark, Halsey, Montgomery, Alexander, Wingate and Harris.

Although military leaders were responsible for implementing decisions, Roberts’ book clearly shows that it was their political masters who ran the show. It was only when the masters were disengaged, which in Churchill’s case was not often, that a commander might occasionally veer off course. But at no time either in Washington or London was there an example of the kind of chaos and infighting that has marked the Obama Administration’s management of the Afghanistan war. The central theme of the Rolling Stone article is not the bad behavior of a rogue commander but about a dysfunctional leadership in Washington. The article makes the Obama team appear to be less a team of rivals and more like a team of nine year olds.

The lesson here for the current McChrystal “scandal” is that there is no one in charge in Washington over the war in Afghanistan. Rolling Stone recently published a major expose of the administration’s failures to deal with the dysfunctional Minerals Management Service in the run up to the BP oil disaster. This article makes clear that the President failed to act like a chief executive. Now there is a second piece on General McChrystal and the failure of presidential leadership in the war in Afghanistan. The President’s apparent detachment from the business of governing and from the responsibilities for leading the nation in war is reflected in the disorder experienced in the lower echelons of government in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Should the President fire General McChrystal? There is a story that when President Lincoln was asked to fire General Ulysses Grant he replied, “I can’t fire him, he fights.” As the Rolling Stone article makes clear, General McChrystal fights. And fights. And fights. There is no other senior commander with McChrystal’s credentials in the fight against global terrorism. He is the war in Afghanistan. It is his strategy, his surge, his rules of engagement. No one can step into his shoes at this critical juncture in the war in Afghanistan and hope to lead as well.