McChrystal Calls Out White House 'Wimps,' Gets Summons

Guests

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, associate editor, Washington Post
Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for New American Security

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, was summoned back to Washington by the President after he slammed Vice President Joe Biden and "the wimps in the White House" to Rolling Stone. McChrystal issued an apology for his "poor judgement," but faces calls for his resignation.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

The top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, is on his way back to Washington. President Obama summoned him after the general aired grievances about his superiors in a profile that appears in Rolling Stone magazine. The issue hits the newsstands on Friday. General McChrystal was quoted as saying he was disappointed by the president after their first meeting. He shares a disparaging joke about the vice president with an aide, rolls his eyes when he gets an email from a presidential envoy and states that the current ambassador to Afghanistan betrayed him.

The general has a long history of military accomplishments. Today, he apologized to many of those mentioned in the article. He arrives in Washington tomorrow to talk with the secretary of defense and the president, uncertain that he will still have his job afterwards.

We'd like to hear today from officers who've served in Afghanistan. What's your reaction to General McChrystal's comments? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the associate editor at the Washington Post, back in the States after months in Afghanistan and good enough to join us today on his vacation. Rajiv, nice to have you back.

Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (Associate Editor, The Washington Post): Good to be (unintelligible) with you, Neal.

CONAN: And also former Army Ranger and civilian advisor to General McChrystal, Andrew Exum. He's with us here in Studio 3A. He's now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ANDREW M. EXUM (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Good to be back.

CONAN: And Rajiv, the Rolling Stone profile by Michael Hastings is titled "The Runaway General." Does this portray the General McChrystal that you know?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, you know, certainly, it portrays some very candid, behind-the-scenes conversations that I found to be, you know, quite extraordinary in that they would just sort of get out there like that, that a journalist would be allowed that degree of unfettered access.

Look, during any intense conflict like this, you're going to have a diversity of opinions. You're going to have people who are close to a leader like that expressing frustration, joking around at times, perhaps inappropriately. But generally speaking, that's not the sort of thing that is supposed to go get out into the public domain. And the fact that it did is a - it's probably - I'm not trying to suggest in any way that Rolling Stone violated any ground rules. This seems to have been a grave error, you know, misjudgment on the part of the general's press handlers.

CONAN: And the general's press handler, a civilian, has resigned today after this article appeared, the consultant who was working on this apparently arranged the access. But nobody has disputed any of the quotes.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That's right. There's been no suggestion that he was misquoted or that the reporter violated any sort of ground rules, which leads me to believe that the reporter was let in there with the rules that this was all on the record. And to - you know, of course, as a journalist, I want to be allowed into as many things as possible in an on-the-record capacity. But from all of my previous dealings with General McChrystal and his staff, all of those types of conversations with his closest aides were always kept either on background or off the record.

CONAN: And not - background, not for attribution

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That's correct.

CONAN: All right. And, Andrew Exum, we have to turn to you just for a moment. This is very serious stuff. This appears to be, on the face of it, a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, I mean, this is difficult for me, because I personally admire General McChrystal. I served under him in Afghanistan in 2004, worked with him last year in 2009. He's a man of tremendous talents that I really look up to. On the other hand, as a defense policy analyst and as a student of civil-military relations, I mean, it's a firing offense. So at this point, I think the president has a very tough decision ahead of him. He has to decide whether or not he's going to, in essence, allow this firing offense to go unpunished, or if he's not going to dismiss General McChrystal because there's this greater good and that good is stabilizing Afghanistan. Or, whether it's important to lay down a marker with respect to civil military relations and dismiss the general.

I think it's a really tough decision, and I think that either option carries tremendous risks for both the president as well as the mission in Afghanistan.

CONAN: And as you pointed out on a blog today, if General McChrystal is allowed to say this without punishment, what do you say to a second lieutenant who mouths off?

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, it's a tough thing. You know, General McChrystal commanded the 75th Ranger Regiment, a regiment of great tradition, and I served under him in that regiment. And, you know, when you walk by something that's wrong and you don't correct it, you've just established a new standard. That's what officers are always taught. And if you allow a rule to go unenforced, if you allow a situation to go unpunished, then you've, in essence, created a new standard for all those who follow you.

And so it's going to be awfully difficult to discipline a junior officer, for example, if you allow this to go unpunished. Now, I mean, there are several ways you could work around this. I mean, you could have General McChrystal resign and then the president not accept his resignation, you could - that would be one option. But either way, I think that both - any course of action the president takes is going to be one involving tremendous amounts of risk.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sam(ph) in Wichita. General McChrystal was telling the truth. The only reason he's apologizing is to protect his position.

Mr. EXUM: Well, I mean, I think that it's no secret that there have been some real tensions between the command in Afghanistan and between some of our top diplomats. I think that's...

CONAN: Beyond dispute, yeah.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, exactly. But on the other hand, I think that General McChrystal is also a canny-enough officer and takes the profession of military officer serious enough to where he knows he's made a mistake here. He knows that he is not allowed to denigrate or to participate in the denigration of civilian officials in front of, you know, in front of reporters or even in front of his own junior officers.

CONAN: And Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the general has gotten in to trouble with the White House before: A memo that he wrote suggesting that he needed 40,000 troops to complete the job at Afghanistan, that was leaked. The White House certainly felt like he was extorting them a little bit.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, and that wasn't even the most serious previous offense. What really alarmed and angered many in the White House were some public comments he made in London back in the fall during the strategy review as the White House was deciding how many more troops to send to Afghanistan.

And his comments there were viewed by the White House and by his superiors at the Pentagon at the time as being, in some sense, as a rebuke to the White House. And when President Obama was in Europe, he summoned McChrystal to meet with him and by all accounts, you know, President Obama dressed down General McChrystal.

So, this is not the first offense, and - so for some in the White House who are very concerned about this, they view McChrystal as a recidivist on this regard.

CONAN: Now, let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'd like to hear from officers, especially those who've been in Afghanistan, about their reactions to this.

Bob(ph) is on the line from Columbus.

BOB (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my phone call, Neal. I'm not an officer, but I'm an non-commissioned officer. I served under General McChrystal when I was in the Special Forces back in 2005 in Afghanistan.

Now, I think General McChrystal is obviously the wrong man for the job because he does something that you do not expect the privates in the Army to do. He always goes around the chain of command and he likes attention, as far as the media. He likes to shoot his mouth off, which is usually very bad for a general let alone along as someone in a lower rank. And a lot of the officers are not going to say that because somehow, you know, it's code of honor not to say anything bad about another soldier.

But in this case, I think he's done numerous times. He forced the person at hand last time by releasing those numbers and that sort of thing to the media. And he's doing it again. And I don't think that's something that you would expect a general, let alone - I mean, expect private let alone a general that's in command our forces.

CONAN: Let me ask Rajiv Chandrasekaran - thanks very much for the call, Bob.

Let me ask Rajiv about that. Is - the article portrays General McChrystal as somebody who was very much under the radar when he was the head of Special Operations Command and - is what Bob says a fair characterization of him in terms of his role with the media in his role as commander in Afghanistan?

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think that, you know, McChrystal has been coming to this whole world of being a more public military figure, not just in terms of dealing with the press but in terms of dealing with political Washington, dealing with other nations because he is also wearing a NATO hat in his role in Afghanistan.

All of this is somewhat new to him. And so, we're seeing a general - albeit a four-star general here - commanding the biggest war our nation is fighting. He is on his own learning curve in terms of all of these things.

And so, while he is trying to take 100,000 or so U.S. troops and get them to wage a different sort of counterinsurgency fight there, he himself is having to learn how to navigate news interviews, how to navigate a congressional testimony and dealings with civilian officials.

And for somebody who has risen up from that very secretive world in the Special Forces and in the Rangers, that is a big challenge.

CONAN: The article also goes on to say there are - he's having a lot of trouble selling his ideas, too. Many of his own men are highly skeptical that this is working or at least working where they are. And the article specifically describes the operation at Marja, which was supposed to be the model for what was going to then happen in Kandahar, as a disaster.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well - and this may be, perhaps, the biggest concern that folks in the White House have at this point. It's not simply a set of flippant remarks in a magazine article, but whether the McChrystal strategy is working as they all had hoped. Now, McChrystal's defenders would say, look, it's still early days. He still hasn't gotten all of the additional troops that were authorized by the president, that operations like Marja are things that take months, you just - you don't get results in days or weeks.

But some of the early signs have been concerning. And it's not a question of the performance of U.S. or NATO forces, but it's broader questions like, are the Afghans willing to step up and work in partnership with international forces to stabilize their country? Is the Afghan government going to send enough civil servants down to these places to deliver basic services? Or are the Afghan security forces getting built quickly enough? Do the Afghan people feel like they need international forces to protect them from the Taliban?

There are some fundamental assumptions that underlie the strategy that looking at it now, essentially six months in from the president's decision to send those additional troops and to fully embrace McChrystal's strategy, critics are asking, well, is all of this working as we had hoped? And so part of this whole question of should McChrystal stay or go will be wrapped up at the highest levels in terms of an assessment of whether his overall approach is the right one.

CONAN: We're talking about the general who's at risk of his job for remarks he made to a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine. The profile is called "The Runaway General." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me reintroduce our guests. You just heard from Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post. Also with us, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, but also a former subordinate officer to General McChrystal and has worked with him and has said, earlier in this broadcast, he holds him in great regard.

And what Rajiv was just talking about, that's exactly the point you made in your blog. If - there's a risk to removing him because you undercut the strategy. But if the strategy, you think, is not going well, maybe this is exactly the time to remove him.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, I think Rajiv got two things right. First off, I think he got correct General McChrystal's learning process that he's going with - going through, trying to become a public figure after being in the shadows for so long. And second, I think, he got something else correct. Where you fall down on whether General McChrystal should be dismissed or retained, I think in large part, is going to mirror whether or not you think the strategy is working.

If you think that the strategy is the most appropriate one for Afghanistan, you're going to be more likely to say, okay, civil military relations are important, but the stabilization of Afghanistan is more important. We should retain General McChrystal.

If, however, you feel that the strategy is inappropriate for Afghanistan and that our assumptions have been proved false to such a degree that we need to reexamine our strategic goals in Afghanistan, you're much more likely to say, okay, this is as good a time as any to get a new general and a new strategy.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian(ph), Brian with us from Fort Bragg.

BRIAN (Caller): Yeah. I just wanted to say, gentleman, that I don't disagree that this is an egregious - quite an error on the part of General McChrystal. My concern, though, is that you fire two generals in a year, you're dooming the - you're dooming the war. Eisenhower wouldn't fire Patton, even though all the things he did.

I'm not trying to draw a direct comparison, but there's good reason he didn't fire him based on what was going on, the need to the Allied powers. So I just think that you, you know, if you fire the guy, as an Army officer, we're having enough trouble, and it's not right what he did. But our future is - becomes much, much bleak if the decision tomorrow is to fire him. That's all.

CONAN: And that's, I think, Andrew Exum, that's one of the risks you talked about.

Mr. EXUM: Yeah, I think that's - I think the officer from Fort Bragg summed it up nicely. I think that we have an egregious error of judgment by General McChrystal, but we also have a war we're trying to win in Afghanistan - and the tough decision. And if I'm the president of the United States, I'm really frustrated with General McChrystal right now because now I have to make a decision about - between civil military relations and keeping those healthy and establishing a good precedent, and between continuing our strategy in Afghanistan.

I think that I agree with the officer that things get much more difficult in Afghanistan if you try to switch out the commanders, unless you promote maybe General Rodriguez, who's the deputy to General McChrystal right now. There, you may be able to keep some sort of continuity. But it's really difficult in that General McChrystal has probably developed the best relationship with Hamid Karzai of any of the senior U.S. envoys, to include Ambassador Holbrooke and Ambassador Eikenberry.

CONAN: Well, he got endorsed today by Hamid Karzai who said he's been the best commander the United States has ever sent to Afghanistan, and hopes that he keeps that job. He also had some problems with David Obey, who is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the committee that votes on funds for the military, said, this is too much, he should resign.

So we'll have to wait and see what happens when there is a meeting at the White House tomorrow. Among those in that meeting will be the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and of course the secretary of State as well, Hillary Clinton.

So Brian, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

BRIAN: (Unintelligible) gentlemen.

CONAN: And Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thanks for taking time off from your vacation.

Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Good to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: Rajiv Chandrasekaran is the associate editor of The Washington Post, just back from Afghanistan. Also with us, Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for the New American Security, with us here in Studio 3A in Washington, D.C.

Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. EXUM: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up tomorrow, the Political Junkie looks at the runoffs in both Carolinas and primary results from Utah. Join us then. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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