Over the last couple of days, we've heard of the trespasses of General McChrystal, our lead military presence in Afghanistan. While none of the trespasses have to do specifically with his work in Afghanistan, the charge of insubordination by foolish interview is a serious one. It's also a charge that tends to lead to unemployment in the military. Many on both sides of the aisle are calling for McChrystal's dismissal…and I would be one of them under normal circumstances. However, if I were advising the president on this one, I might move McChrystal aside and make him a special advisor to the new General. McChrystal is too knowledgeable about what's going on in the field and has a strong working relationship with Hamid Karzai…which the White House does not. When the soldiers are brought home, retire General McChrystal gracefully. You preserve the chain of command, but don't disgrace a highly decorated General. You also don't jeopardize the mission. It's graceful but just. I think the public would applaud such a temperate approach, though there might be a better one out there. There is a need to preserve chain of command. However, there is a need to keep the mission in Afghanistan on-track.
Complicating things for the President is the mounting public perception that he abuses power. Many look at his conduct during the health-care debate, interference in Democratic primaries through job offers for people to drop out, his spat with FOX News via Anita Dunn, the BP oil spill (shutting down deep-water drilling), and some other cases in which he seems to whack anyone who "crosses" him. Leaders must be tough, but they can't be brutal or abusive of the power given them.
If our President was generally regarded as a "softie" toward his opponents he might want to handle this differently. I believe that if he hammers McChrystal here, it will further public perception of his leadership as harsh, and yet extremely fragile when it comes to receiving criticism. It would further people's perception of him as a Low-High leader (to use Steinke's language)—one who can't tolerate much pain himself, but has a high threshold for it in others. Whether such criticism is fair or not, I will leave to those smarter than me. However, this McChrystal situation is an important one for the President. I hope he handles it the right way. I know he'll try.
This raises some interesting questions: What would you do with McChrystal if you were the President? When it comes to your own leadership, would you rather be perceived as too "soft" or as one who abuses power? Obviously, most would want to live between the two. If you had to pick one perception, which would you pick?