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It's time for Obama to replace Gates, too

The day Gen. Stanley McChrystal was finally pulled off his soapbox by President Obama, Fox commentator Bill O'Reilly called McChrystal "a hero and a patriot." Liar and mutineer are closer to the truth.

From the other ideological extreme came Chris Matthews. He told "Hardball" viewers that Obama's replacement of McChrystal with Gen. David Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan was a "brilliant" stroke of statecraft.

In reality, Obama stayed the course of shrinking from the stark truth that nobody is going to build a new nation in Afghanistan, no matter how many American billions and bodies are spent there.

Returning to McChrystal, Obama's handling of that motor-mouth raises doubts about the president's judgment, nerve and executive ability. It also raises questions about the conduct of Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- before and after McChrystal's removal -- and about the growing arrogance of our uniformed establishment.

In 2004, McChrystal showed himself to be a problem general. He helped to doctor the Army's report about the death in Afghanistan of Pat Tillman, claiming the former NFL star died from enemy fire. In reality, Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

It took McChrystal just four months to show Obama he made a big mistake in naming McChrystal to command in Afghanistan. In September 2009, he leaked a confidential report to Gates saying the United States would lose that war if Obama didn't send more troops.

Obama wanted to wait and think about it. McChrystal publicly forced Obama's hand to increase our forces there while wiser regimes were planning to get out. McChrystal was allowed to go on a media blitz to make his case. He whined on CBS he hadn't spoken with Obama for six months. Then McChrystal made a speech in London where he implied that Vice President Biden's hopes to limit our forces would lead to "Chaos-istan." In October, Obama dressed McChrystal down in a meeting on Air Force One for that remark. Obama should have fired him right on the tarmac.

In Congress, only Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, rose to say this loose cannon should be spiked. Certainly not Gates, who pushed McChrystal's appointment in the first place.

As the Rolling Stone article showed, McChrystal never shut up even after getting 30,000 more U.S. troops. McChrystal and aides bad-mouthed the president, the vice president, the ambassador and others on the record. What McChrystal & Co. did was more than a misunderstanding. It is against military law for any officer to "use contemptuous words" against the president or vice president. An officer can get five years in prison for causing disloyalty to one's commander, or commander-in-chief; and up to 20 years in wartime. There are also severe penalties for an officer's failing to stop or report this type of talk.

No one is going to court-martial a general, much as he deserves it. The question for Obama and us civilians is: Where is the line dividing private military disagreement from public disparagement of the White House?

How much distance is there from a general's coaxing his headquarters staff to rail against the president, then encouraging disobedience, then mutiny, or coup?

Military law outlaws sedition, meaning rabble-rousing. When an officer takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, he or she surrenders that aspect of free speech. That's because he or she commands soldiers and weapons systems, and because history is replete with armies overthrowing elected governments.

Gates claims he is sure that the reckless brand of derision McChrystal gave his blessing to doesn't exist in other commands. Gates or his successor ought to find out. After all, Gates licensed McChrystal's grandstanding for 10 long months.

Obama should replace Gates with a leader with a stronger commitment to civilian supremacy over the military.

e-mail: dturner@buffnews.com

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