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McChrystal’s Future in Limbo Over Criticism

June 22, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, made a swift apology to Obama administration officials for critical remarks that were published in a Rolling Stone article. Jim Lehrer gets three points of view on the fallout from the general's quotes.
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JIM LEHRER: General McChrystal, commander of forces in Afghanistan, faced removal after he and his aides were quoted mocking President Obama and his top advisers in a magazine article.

Mr. Obama called the general to a meeting at the White House tomorrow, and he had this to say after meeting his Cabinet late today.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: General McChrystal is on his way here. And I am going to meet with him. Secretary Gates will be meeting with him as well.

I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor — showed poor judgment. And — but I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.

JIM LEHRER: At issue, a lengthy “Rolling Stone” magazine profile in which McChrystal and his colleagues spoke derisively about President Obama and his top aides.

The piece depicts McChrystal as wary of the president’s mission right from the start a year ago, when appointed to lead the Afghanistan mission. At their first Oval Office meeting, McChrystal was pretty disappointed, an aide told “Rolling Stone,” because Mr. Obama didn’t seem very engaged.

At the White House today, the president’s spokesman was asked about the president’s reaction.

ROBERT GIBBS, White House press secretary: I gave him the article last night. And he was angry.

QUESTION: How so?

ROBERT GIBBS: Angry. You would know it if you saw it.

JIM LEHRER: In response to a question about McChrystal’s future, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said:

ROBERT GIBBS: I would say all options are on the table.

JIM LEHRER: And he said the president and McChrystal will likely meet one on one.

ROBERT GIBBS: General McChrystal is a — has — has fought bravely on behalf of this country for a long time. Nobody could or should take that away from him, and nobody will. But there has clearly been an enormous mistake in judgment to which he’s going to have to answer to.

I think the magnitude of the — and the graveness of the mistake here are profound.

JIM LEHRER: The magazine article recounts an open disagreement the two men had last year over troop levels in Afghanistan. At the time, McChrystal said, without 40,000 more troops, the U.S. was headed for mission failure.

Then, at a speech in London, the general said the U.S. wouldn’t just focus on defeating al-Qaida. That was the suggestion of Vice President Biden. McChrystal called such a strategy shortsighted.

President Obama castigated McChrystal for overstepping and called for a full strategy review before eventually approving an increase. “I found that time painful,” McChrystal told “Rolling Stone.” “I was selling an unsellable position.”

The article also recounts aides to McChrystal ridiculing the vice president, and one aide calling National Security Adviser James Jones a “clown.” The general himself had harsh words for U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, who last year questioned McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

“Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal told “Rolling Stone.” “Now, if we fail, they can say, I told you so.”

McChrystal has spoken bluntly about the war effort in the past, including just last month with the “NewsHour”‘s Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: As we sit here now, is the U.S., along with its allies, winning the war in Afghanistan?

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. Commander in Afghanistan: Well, I think that, in the last year, we have made a lot of progress. I think I would be prepared to say nobody is winning at this point.

JIM LEHRER: Today, the general’s top civilian media aide submitted his resignation, and McChrystal issued a written apology.

He wrote, “The profile piece was a mistake, reflecting poor judgment, and should never have happened.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in a statement that he recalled McChrystal to tomorrow’s White House meeting. He said, “General McChrystal made a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment.”

And at a Senate Foreign Relations hearing, Chairman John Kerry said the general’s fate is in Mr. Obama’s hands.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass., Foreign Relations Committee chairman: But my impression is that all of us would be best served by just backing off and staying cool and calm, and, you know, not sort of succumbing to the normal Washington twitter about this for the next 24 hours.

We have troops on the front lines. We have a major mission that we are in the middle of.

JIM LEHRER: McChrystal still has the confidence of Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. Today, he called McChrystal the best commander and urged President Obama not to replace him.

Still, the fighting has taken no break for controversy. Two NATO service members were killed in attacks in the south, one last night and one today.

For more, we go to Mark Thompson, deputy bureau chief and Pentagon correspondent for “TIME” magazine, retired General Dan McNeill, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2007 to ’8, and retired General Merrill McPeak, Air Force chief of staff from 1990 to 1994. He was among a group of generals who campaigned in 2008 for Barack Obama.

Mark Thompson, where do things stand right now? Is McChrystal on his way out?

MARK THOMPSON, deputy bureau chief and pentagon correspondent, “TIME”: Well, Jim, I think it’s important to note that this story hit Washington this morning like an IED. Nobody could understand why General McChrystal would say such things or his staff.

It’s important to point out that this isn’t an argument about policy. It’s not a general being insubordinate to a president. It has to do with personalities and somewhat sophomoric comments that both he and some of his closest aides made to this reporter.

The key question is, the president might get a sense or a good feeling if he cans McChrystal, simply because this is the second time this has happened in less than a year, but, on the cusp of the U.S. and NATO effort toward taking over Kandahar and taking it back from the Taliban, it may be a decision he really can’t afford to make right now.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the best word on how in the world this happened? He — McChrystal said this shouldn’t have happened. Well, how did it?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, he did — he had spent close to 30 years with special forces. Unlike other generals who have spent years interfacing with reporters, with Congress, with allies, he was always behind closed doors. He was in the black world. He was a so-called snake eater.

He parachuted into Afghanistan last year, and all of a sudden the floodlights of the world media were on him. And some people suggest that him and his close circle of aides also drawn from this realm weren’t up to the task of dealing with the 21st century media.

JIM LEHRER: General McNeill, how do you see how this could have happened? Do you find this rather unusual?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL, U.S. Army: Jim, it is out of character with Stanley A. McChrystal. I have been traveling most of the day, but I got home about two hours ago. One of your producers provided me electronically a copy of the article.

And the article does contain some things that are unfortunate and completely out of character with General McChrystal. I think the question at hand is, are these things so egregious that he should be replaced? I think the answer to that is, you have to weigh it against what he’s doing for the country, what he’s doing for the alliance. And I think the answer is clearly, no, he shouldn’t be replaced.

JIM LEHRER: But, back to the original question. What would possess General McChrystal to do something like this? How would something — based on your experience, how does something — it’s never — these things don’t normally happen. Why would it have happened in McChrystal’s case, do you think?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: I think that there’s a chance that he and the boys may have put their guard down around this reporter.

And, as I understand, the reporter — and I will not criticize the reporter or the article or the publication for which it stands — or comes from, I should say — but it’s written in prose. It makes them seem almost flippant, makes them seem almost arrogant.

I know these guys. That’s not how I would characterize any of them.

JIM LEHRER: General McPeak, what’s your explanation? I know you don’t know for the fact, but what do you guess is the explanation for how this happened?

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK, U.S. Air Force: Well, unlike Dan McNeill, I don’t know McChrystal, so I can’t give you a personal profile. But it’s a mystery to me, Jim. I can’t — I cannot understand why a four-star general serving as a theater commander with very high political responsibilities, policy responsibilities, would say some of the things in this article. So, I can’t explain it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe it’s a firing offense, General McPeak?

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK: Yes, sir, I do, but I don’t know if he should be fired. That’s two different questions.

He’s done something that would merit his firing. But like Dan McNeill said, what is the situation on the ground in Afghanistan? Who have you got to replace him? I mean, there are a number of practical questions that would — that might come between you and actually firing the guy, even though he’s — he’s — it’s a firing offense.

JIM LEHRER: General McNeill, is it your view that it is a firing offense, but that he shouldn’t be fired, for the very reasons that General McPeak said?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: Well, the article is unfortunate. But that’s not to say that I’m — that I would say it’s insubordinate.

And I think what’s — the issue will boil down to, do you construe this to be insubordinate, insubordinate to the point that it ranks with some other dimensions of U.S. history in the past that he has spoken out, which, as I understand, it’s a violation of U.S. code against officeholders and whatnot.

But my read on what I was provided is there’s not a whole lot there put to McChrystal in quotes. There’s a lot of innuendo and there’s a lot of generalizations about what some members of his staff said. So, maybe the issue here is that we take a look at the team. They have been together for a long time. I know most of them. They’re very good guys. But maybe the team needs to be shuffled around a little bit.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that would do that, General McPeak, that might solve the problem, just reshuffle the team a bit?

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK: Well, my inclination would be to support McChrystal, I think, first — for a couple of reasons. First, he has got a very tough problem. This is mission impossible he’s working on in Afghanistan.

And I don’t think it’s helpful to him if you have got ex — you know, retired senior officers weighing in against him. So, I would initially like to support him, and for another reason, too. I don’t know him, but what I have read about him says he’s a warrior.

And, sometimes, warriors are frank, to the point of bluntness. They’re hard to get along with. And — but they’re pretty nice to have, good to have around when it’s dark.

So, my inclination would be to give him all the support we can. My question here is a judgment call. Now, I agree with Dan McNeill that maybe “Rolling Stone” made more out of this than could be attributed directly to McChrystal. You know, he’s not quoted directly on a number of these things, like calling Jim Jones a clown. That’s not a quote from him, and so, forth.

But it’s also pretty clear that these were his guys, and they thought at least they were reflecting his views. So, the question you have here is, how good of judgment does he have? How smart is he? Is he smart enough to solve what is a really difficult problem in Afghanistan? That’s the question that the president has to ask.

JIM LEHRER: Mark Thompson, you have heard what General McNeill and General McPeak just said. How does that — what does your reporting reflect about the reaction has been within the high levels and other levels in the Pentagon since this broke?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, in the military, there is a big split. Some people say, including senior officers, he’s got to go, there’s no choice, mostly because this is the second time it’s happened.

He was chided by the president last October, following his remarks in London that were perceived as taking a shot at Vice President Biden. Others say, as Tony McPeak just pointed out, this guy is a special operations commando, has done that for 30 years. He’s not a banker. And we shouldn’t be surprised when he doesn’t talk like a banker.

Now, a reporter hung around allegedly for a month. They were basically snowed in, in Europe because of the volcano that kept them grounded. And so he spent a lot of time in close confines with these folks. And, obviously, they said some things they shouldn’t have said.

The sense from the military is, civilian control is absolute and it’s a brittle and bright line. You cross it at your peril. So, plainly, the sense from most military folks is, yes, this is a firing offense. But they split on whether or not they believe the president should take that action.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading of how Secretary Gates feels about this?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, Secretary Gates obviously is the key adviser here to the president.

He met with McChrystal today. He’s playing his cards very close to his vest, but he issued a statement following McChrystal’s first snafu where he said, this kind of advice should be offered privately. So, once again, for whatever reason, McChrystal has transgressed. The question is going to be, will Secretary Gates allow him to transgress twice?

JIM LEHRER: General McNeill, is it your feeling that, if somehow McChrystal survives this, that he can still lead the forces in Afghanistan?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: Absolutely. And I think, if you were to check those forces, that you would get that same vote.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you also said that this kind of thing does not reflect your knowledge of — of Stanley McChrystal. What did you base that on?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: I think that the episode back last October that Mark was referring to has been blown all out of proportion. It’s not consistent with what I know of that event.

JIM LEHRER: That he doesn’t talk this way? He doesn’t…

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: No, no, no.

JIM LEHRER: He doesn’t talk this way among his own folks?

GEN. DAN MCNEILL: He does not disparage his chain of command. He does not disparage those who work for him or those who are his peers.

Anyone who has served with him — and, by the way, we should correct the record. It’s not 30 years in special ops. He’s touched all the bases. He’s been a mechanized soldier, a parachute soldier, straight infantry soldier, Ranger soldier, Army Special Forces, and, of course, our high side special forces.

He’s covered all bases. So, it’s completely out of character with him. And I will again point out to you that what I read, much of it is innuendo.

JIM LEHRER: General McPeak, the — you say you don’t know General McChrystal, right?

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK: That’s correct, although…

JIM LEHRER: What has been your…

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK: Well, I would just add to what Dan said, that he spent a year at the Council on Foreign Relations. He spent a year at Harvard.

And he’s in a position where he reports not just to the president, but he’s a NATO commander. He has to deal with heads of state from all the NATO countries.

I mean, there is a very big political element in what he has to do. Counterinsurgency is, in many ways, political fighting par excellence. And, so, the issue here is judgment in dealing with the policy aspects, the political aspects of his job.

I have no doubt that every guy working for him in Afghanistan is very high on him. He’s a warrior. But it’s the political element of his job that he’s — I mean, this guy took on the president, the vice president, the national security adviser, Ambassador Holbrooke, Ambassador Eikenberry, everybody up and down the line.

And it doesn’t show a lot of judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Is judgment going to be the key word, Mark, when it’s all said and done?

MARK THOMPSON: Yes, I think so, I mean, not only McChrystal’s judgment but the president’s judgment and how he deals with it.

Some of McChrystal’s allies have said, this guy has been in a tough job, not only for the past year in Afghanistan, but before that at the Pentagon, and before that as head of special operations. I mean, he has been in an intense pressure cooker for a long period of time. And, you know, maybe he just needs to take a little breather.

JIM LEHRER: So, give him a break?

MARK THOMPSON: Well, at least keep reporters away.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. OK.

JIM LEHRER: Mark Thompson, Generals both, thank you very much.

GEN. MERRILL MCPEAK: Thank you.