Given that I just wrote a book on Eisenhower and dealt extensively with his challenges managing Gen. George Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, it’s not surprising that more than a few people have asked me what I think of how President Obama handed Gen. Stanley McChrystal. My answer has disappointed them:
Ike put up with Patton because he believed that once Patton was unleashed in Europe he would be very successful. Ike, if anything, underestimated Patton, who was astoundingly successful, pulling off a near miracle in his relief of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
On the other hand, Eisenhower was never able to get Montgomery to produce the way Ike wanted, so eventually he went around Monty but did not fire him.
President Abraham Lincoln struggled with Gen. George McClellan for more than a year, putting up with insubordination and disrespect beyond anything Gen. McChrystal said or did for the simple reason that he thought McClellan was the right man for the job. Once it became apparent that McClellan was the wrong man, Lincoln did fire him.
Franklin Roosevelt had to swallow hard on more than one occasion when dealing with Douglas MacArthur in World War II, but MacArthur produced so it was worth it. Harry Truman had more problems with MacArthur in Korea, but allowed the general to stay in place as long as he did the job — once he failed to do so and blamed his failure on the president, he was out.
America has a long history of senior commanders demonstrating patience with field commanders. There’s also a long history of replacing them. Lincoln eventually replaced McClellan with Ulysses S. Grant and the results were extremely successful. Truman replaced MacArthur with Matthew Ridgway, and Ridgway began turning around the Korean war effort almost immediately.
President Obama could have kept McChrystal in place if he still believed that the general could do the job — including relating to the key players in the Obama administration.
But the president had an excellent replacement waiting in the wings, Gen. David Petraeus, the leader of the Iraq surge, and McChrystal’s immediate boss. Petraeus is familiar with all of the details and all of the players. If anyone can bring success in Afghanistan, it’s Gen. Petraeus.
The important thing for President Obama was not which decision to make. It was making the decision, period. That’s what leaders do — make the tough calls.