Gen. Stanley McChrystal put President Obama in an impossible position. That is why he had to go.
A general's tasks involve executing policies made by the commander in chief, plotting strategy and winning wars -- not playing politics in the media to get at civilian rivals inside the government.
What McChrystal did required Obama to change generals at a decisive moment in the Afghanistan conflict or risk looking weak and out of control. It's not a choice a president should be forced into making.
But the McChrystal imbroglio also highlighted the obstacles facing Obama's effort to find a third way between rival policy factions in his own White House.
Everyone on the president's team, including McChrystal, said he had signed off on the Obama compromise: to give McChrystal the troops he said he needed to improve the situation but to place a clear time limit on how long the troops would stay. In practice, the president's advisers continued to feud, sowing uncertainty about what the policy actually was.
The administration was openly divided over how effectively it could work with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Unlike McChrystal, Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, think Karzai is a hopeless and hapless leader.
Given the factional war inside the administration, Karzai himself felt perfectly free to weigh in on the controversy let loose by the Rolling Stone article. Karzai let it be known he saw McChrystal as "the best commander the United States has sent to Afghanistan."
Paradoxically, Karzai's supportive comments underscored why McChrystal had to be relieved. One little-noted passage in Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone article underscored McChrystal's central problem.
"The most striking example of McChrystal's usurpation of diplomatic policy is his handling of Karzai," Hastings wrote. "It is McChrystal, not diplomats like Eikenberry or Holbrooke, who enjoys the best relationship with the man America is relying on to lead Afghanistan. The doctrine of counterinsurgency requires a credible government, and since Karzai is not considered credible by his own people, McChrystal has worked hard to make him so."
A military strategy is supposed to fit the facts on the ground. But McChrystal was trying to invent an alternative reality to fit the facts to his counterinsurgency strategy, trying to turn Karzai into something he isn't.
There was also a profound contempt shown in the Rolling Stone piece toward almost everyone outside McChrystal's tight inner circle. What signal did McChrystal think he was sending? The key to counterinsurgency strategy is its awareness of the effect of politics, governance and public opinion on the chances of success.
Obama's approach to Afghanistan was always a delicate balance: Escalate now to speed withdrawal. It was a nice idea, and maybe it can still allow us to leave a modestly improved situation behind.
The problem is that this careful equilibrium required everyone in the administration to pull together. It required very big egos to get along. It required Karzai to change. It required Obama to have real authority over our military.
Obama asserted that authority in a statement that was gracious but firm, and he reminded his fractious team of the importance of a "unity of effort." But he still needs to make his objectives clearer, beginning with an answer to the question: Are we serious about beginning withdrawals next July? Given what's happened so far, we should be.