Julian Zelizer: Not Quite MacArthur





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of “Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security From World War II to the War on Terrorism.” He is author of the forthcoming “Jimmy Carter,” and editor of the forthcoming “President George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment.”]

General McCrystal’s comments in the Rolling Stone interview have rocked Washington. Without question, President Obama has a political problem on his hands....

But is this insubordination? Immediately after news of the interview emerged, some commentators started to compare this situation to the conflict between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman during the Korean War in 1951.

MacArthur, who had tested the waters for a presidential bid as a Republican, sharply criticized Truman’s strategy in Korea. He accused the president of tying the military’s hands and undermining the war effort. And he went so far as to send a letter to Republican House Minority Leader Joseph Martin expressing his views. After reading MacArthur’s letter to the House Republicans, the president noted in his diary, “MacArthur shoots another political bomb . . . This looked like the last straw. Rank insubordination.”

The McCrystal interview is not comparable to the MacArthur scandal. This appears to be a case of a very poorly chosen statements in an explosive media era. And it is not a total surprise. General McCrystal, as the article in Rolling Stone notes, has always been known for speaking his mind with “a candor rare for a high ranking official.”...

Even if this is episode is not MacArthur-like, the tension between civilian and military officials has become grown significantly, so it is quite conceivable the White House will decide to relieve General McCrystal for his statements.

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