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McChrystal vs. Obama: Top 3 All-Time General-Against-President Feuds

5 years ago
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Washington is in an absolute uproar over the "The Runaway General," as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, is characterized in a bombshell Rolling Stone magazine profile that went online today. Specifically, the scandal surrounds statements in the article attributed to the strong-willed McChrystal and his aides that are staunchly critical of the White House's approach to the war in Afghanistan, and some members of the Obama administration writ large.

They article comes at an especially inopportune time, with the situation in Afghanistan growing increasingly dire even after President Barack Obama ordered another 30,000 troops to the region at the end of last year. Now an apologetic McChrystal has been called back from his post in Afghanistan to the U.S. capital city to meet with the president and his top advisers to try and resolve the situation.

Based on historical precedence, the prospects for McChrystal look fairly beak: Two years ago, Centcom Commander William J. Fallon was forced to resign after an Esquire magazine profile characterized him as the sole voice opposing an attack on Iran in the Bush administration. Indeed, throughout American history, several other high-profile military men have wound up in very public feuds with their commander in chief, most of which have ended in the sitting president's favor. Here are Surge Desk's Top 3:

1. MacArthur vs. Truman

Several writers have characterized the scandal as "Obama's MacArthur Moment," in reference to the notoriously poor relationship between President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander of U.S. and United Nations forces in the Far East during the Korean War (circa 1951).

The situations bear more in common than the generals' like-sounding surnames: Like McChrystal, MacArthur was a popular and highly decorated war hero (credited with winning the Pacific theater during World War II), commander during two distinctly different presidential administrations (Roosevelt to Truman), in charge of a joint, mostly American-U.N. force fighting an increasingly unpopular war in a foreign land (Korea) who found himself the target of political criticism when his war strategy did not pan out (the U.N. forces in Korea were forced to retreat after suffering a major loss in November 1950).

The most striking similarity, however, is the fact that both MacArthur and McChrystal made statements criticizing the sitting president's war strategy. In MacArthur's case, the truly damning comments surfaced in a letter he wrote to House Minority Leader Joseph William Martin Jr., who read the text aloud. Less than a week later, on April 11, Truman relieved MacArthur of his duties via an executive order, which read in part: "I deeply regret that it becomes my duty as President and Commander in Chief of the United States military forces to replace you as Supreme Commander. ... My reasons for your replacement will be made public concurrently with the delivery to you of the foregoing order."

Truman, who replaced MacArthur with Lt. Gen Matthew B. Ridgway, would later express those reasons bluntly in Time:
I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a b****, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.
2. McClellan vs. Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln is widely revered for keeping the country together despite the Civil War, and yet less well known is the fact that he could not keep his internal war board together. The most notable conflict he had was with Maj. Gen. George Brinton McClellan, who only served one year as general in chief of the Union Army before Lincoln unceremoniously demoted him. This despite the fact that McClellan had a reputation for being particularly charming and so effective in battle early in his career as to win the moniker "Young Napoleon."

McClellan was called into service as general in chief following the infamous Union defeat at the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and the subsequent resignation of elderly Gen. Winfield Scott later that year. Lincoln warned McClellan that expectations were riding high on him, especially because of his civilian experience as a railroad engineer (as railroads were the critical wartime transportation of the time) and his previous wartime experience as an officer in the Mexican-American War. McClellan reportedly responded to Lincoln's concerns by telling him not to worry, "I can do it all."

Unfortunately, McClellan quickly fell out of favor with Lincoln's war board when he did not move to take on the Confederate forces gathering around Washington, out of an unfounded fear that the Union was severely outnumbered. It didn't help, either, that McClellan refused or ignored direct presidential orders from Lincoln, whom he referred to as an "idiot" and a "gorilla" in his letters. To make matters worse, McClellan's charms seemed to be ineffectual on the first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, who advised her husband to remove McClellan of his commandership. He finally did so after McClellan was duped by the Confederate forces under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who painted felled logs black and positioned them to look like cannons around Virginia, although he did remain in charge of the Army of the Potomac.

3. Jackson vs. Adams

An even older rivalry between a military man and a politician bears some resemblance to today's between McChrystal and Obama.

John Quincy Adams, the first presidential scion to follow his father (John Adams) into office, began his career as a hotshot lawyer and quickly became a prestigious young senator, like Barack Obama.

Like Obama, he changed course on his approach toward foreign entanglements, first opposing them but then defending the actions of rogue Gen. Andrew Jackson, the great hero of the War of 1812, who came under scrutiny during the Monroe administration for capturing Pensacola, Fla., which belonged to Spain at the time.

Even though the Monroe administration wanted to punish Jackson, Adams, then secretary of state, wrote: "Spain must immediately make her election either to place a force in Florida adequate at once to the protection of her territory and to the fulfillment of her engagements or cede to the United States a province of which she retains nothing but the nominal possession."

And yet, when push came to shove, the two were destined to clash from the start. The scholarly, distinguished Adams "lacked personal warmth" and was viewed as en elitist. Meanwhile, Jackson was arguably the original national populist politician of any significance.

Both were contenders for the White House in the 1824 election, in which Jackson won the popular vote. However, the electoral college votes were split, leading the House of Representatives to choose Adams for the presidency, which created an obvious rift between the two men -- one only exacerbated by the fact that Jackson believed Adams had secured the post via a "corrupt bargain" with another politician, Henry Clay.

For the rest of Adams' presidency, in fact, he found himself dogged by Jackson's political supporters. On top of this, he lost enormous support for enacting a relatively congenial policy toward Native Americans, allowing them to keep their lands while Jackson and his supporters advocated for forcible removal. Eventually, Jackson had his comeuppance when he handily defeated Adams in the 1828 election.

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It is a sad day when a person like obama who has no knowledge of what it takes to rise to the rank of a four star general can just fire him. We need more such generals.

June 23 2010 at 4:55 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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