Obama, McChrystal To Have 'Woodshed' Moment

Gen. Stanley McChrystal has been summoned to the White House to explain disparaging comments he made about the administration to Rolling Stone magazine. Renee Montagne and Steve Inskeep talk to two analysts about the general's comments. Tom Ricks is contributing editor of Foreign Policy's "The Best Defense" blog. Nathaniel Fick is CEO of the Center for a New American Security.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Today, General Stanley McChrystal steps into the White House. We do not know yet if he is visiting for the final time as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: The general meets with President Obama and other key members of the president's national security team. McChrystal and his aides criticized many of them in an article in the magazine Rolling Stone.

INSKEEP: And we're going to talk about this with Tom Ricks and Nathaniel Fick.

MONTAGNE: They're both with the Center for a New American Security, and they're both noted for their writings on military affairs.

Let's listen to what President Obama said.

President BARACK OBAMA: 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 decision.

INSKEEP: The president talking there about final decisions. And let's start with you, Tom Ricks, on the line from Maine. Could McChrystal really lose his job over this?

Mr. TOM RICKS (Center for a New American Security): Yeah. What strikes me is the more people know about the military, the more likely they think he has to go, that he should go and will go. They see this as a matter of ill-discipline.

And once the president says you've shown poor judgment, that is a classic case of lack of confidence. And that is a basic reason for relief in the military. When you lose confidence in a subordinate, you are obliged to relieve them, if only as a matter of obligation to the troops underneath that person.

INSKEEP: Nathaniel Fick, you spent time in the military. Do you think he could really lose his job for these remarks in Rolling Stone?

Mr. NATHANIEL FICK (Center for a New American Security): I think it's entirely possible. And not only have I spent time in the military, I had a Rolling Stone journalist embedded with me for a few months. And so I have sort of a visceral understanding of this one, albeit at a much lower level.

But I actually think the decision the president has to make is a bit different. It's not only about his confidence in General McChrystal. It's about whether he is choosing to assert civilian control, or whether he's choosing continuity in Afghanistan. And because of the tight timeline in Afghanistan, I think he has to make this decision within a much broader context.

MONTAGNE: And we might get to that in a moment, but let's talk about the content of the article just for a moment. When you read it, it's damaging. It's embarrassing. But some of the most shocking comments come from anonymous aides. When it comes to McChrystal himself, it's more like he gets an email from Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, says he doesn't want to read it, puts it away, is vaguely disdainful.

Can McChrystal argue that everyone is making too much of this?

Mr. FICK: I don't think so. I think that commanders are responsible for everything that the people in their charge do or fail to do. And General McChrystal's responsible for the command climate that he sets within his personal staff and within the larger force in Afghanistan. And the comments are certainly egregious. They're reprehensible and unforgivable.

But I'd make the point that if you caught some NSC staffers or people on the vice president's staff sitting around on a Saturday night with a bottle of Scotch, you'd hear a lot of the same things, but the guns would be pointed in a different direction.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You do wonder about that, if what you just heard is the way that people talk when they're uncensored, when they're not talking for the press normally, and this is just normal conversation that you're hearing.

MR. FICK: I think there's...

Mr. RICKS: That goes to the issue of poor judgment. One thing you shouldn't have is a reporter sitting and listening while your aides get hammered. That's a matter of judgment.

INSKEEP: We're talking with Tom Ricks and Nathaniel Fick, both analysts for the Center for New American Security, about General McChrystal's remarks, about today's meeting at the White House with President Obama.

And Nathaniel Fick, you alluded to the larger issue of continuity in Afghanistan. Yesterday, we spoke with Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, leading voice in the Senate on foreign affairs, about McChrystal's remarks. Here's some of what he said.

Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I think that they represent an error of judgment. They're sloppy. As far as I'm concerned, the first priority is our policy in Afghanistan, and having the best leadership possible there in order to - hopefully - be able to be successful.

INSKEEP: And Kerry went on to say, quote: There are very big questions about Afghanistan that would've existed even if this interview had never taken place.

And that's what I'm wondering, gentlemen. Does McChrystal face a more serious problem in that his strategy isn't working? Nathaniel Fick.

Mr. FICK: I think that Secretary Gates made a comment last week that's telling. He said: We can't keep pulling this plant up to check and see whether the roots are growing. Now, this provides a clear excuse to pull up the plant.

And the president is the only one who can decide whether he still believes that General McChrystal is the right person to execute this strategy. If he thinks that this is the wrong guy, then clearly he's got to let him go. If he thinks that this is the right commander with the right strategy who made a series of intemperate remarks that display poor judgment, then he has a harder choice to make.

And given the timeline we're on in Afghanistan, I - and the relationships that General McChrystal has built and the time it takes to rebuild those relationships, that's the context in which he has to make this choice.

MONTAGNE: And Tom Ricks, you're there on the phone. Let me bring you into this conversation. What do you make of that? I mean, let's start with Marjah, the offensive that was touted as being, you know, a model for what was going to happen in Southern Afghanistan. Is it succeeding? And is its success or failure, does this - is all reflected in what we're talking about here?

Mr. RICKS: Well, clearly the situation in Afghanistan is troubled, but I differ with my boss, Nate Fick, on this - I respectfully differ. What I think is...

INSKEEP: Oh, you're not going to be making remarks in Rolling Stone about him, anytime soon. Thats what you're trying to say.

Mr. RICKS: Well, I'd be happy to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: No, please go on. You differ. You differ with Nate Fick on this. Go on. Go on.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. What I think is, you have two distinct issues here, both very important. One is stewardship of the military; one is Afghanistan. McChrystal is not the only guy who could run the war in Afghanistan. But if you leave McChrystal in place, you leave a weakened general in place, and you send a very poor message to the troops about discipline and judgment.

The troops have a term - different spanks for different ranks - in which they suspect that generals get away with stuff that corporals dont get away with. And the message here that Obama needs to send is, no, the entire military is subordinate to me and must show good judgment and discipline.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, but...

Mr. RICKS: And I think thats, in a nutshell, why McChrystal has to go. Leaving McChrystal in place, I think, would be like Harry Truman leaving Douglas MacArthur in place after MacArthur publicly split with him over policy in the Korean War.

MONTAGNE: But Tom Ricks, this isnt a split over policy at this point in time, and which would be very serious. I mean, he has these relationships he's built up, with not just Afghanistan but Pakistan. Are those of no value, and won't they be harmed if he walks away or if he's...

Mr. RICKS: Lots of people have those relationships. You could easily put his subordinate, David Rodriquez, in place. But frankly, there are a bunch of bad relationships that I think outweigh the good ones. McChrystal does not get along with our two other leading American officials in Afghanistan: the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, and the special envoy, Richard Holbrook.

I personally think he should clean out the whole team and start over again. When you have as dysfunctional a relationship as those three men have, it is impossible to put a good policy in place and implement it.

INSKEEP: I noticed that one of the few people whove spoken in support of McChrystal is the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who says that McChrystal is the best general for the war. But given Karzai's reputation in Washington, you have to wonder if that helps or hurts.

Mr. RICKS: Exactly.

Mr. FICK: There's a nice scene in the article where McChrystal goes to speak with Karzai, and Karzai's staff is reluctant to wake him from a nap. So you've got to wonder why Karzai likes McChrystal.

INSKEEP: And that points to a deeper question, perhaps, that Senator John Kerry raised in our interview yesterday as well. He's asking whether there's a credible government that we can support. Is there ever going to be?

MONTAGNE: Let's go to you, Tom Ricks.

Mr. RICKS: No, Im waiting for Nate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Nate Fick, go ahead.

Mr. FICK: I think that whether there's a credible government in Afghanistan is a totally independent question from whether General McChrystal should remain in command. And I think that Tom's right, that the most likely successor - should the president choose to relieve General McChrystal - is his deputy, General Rodriquez. That provides the most continuity, the quickest path to get up to speed with the relationships.

And you know, frankly, Im skeptical of whether there can be an Afghan government in place in time to accomplish what it is that we're saying we're going to accomplish.

INSKEEP: Tom Ricks, you've got about 10 seconds for the last word.

Mr. RICKS: These types of things used to happen frequently; we used to fire generals much more often. It's a tradition in this country thats been lost. And I hope we see it restored.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much for joining us. That was Tom Ricks and Nathaniel Fick, both from the Center for a New American Security.

INSKEEP: Tom is also a contributing editor of "The Best Defense," a blog at ForeignPolicy.com.

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