McChrystal Makes Abrupt Exit
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox, and this TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
On the program today, the five young Muslims from the United States convicted on terrorism charges in Pakistan. They'll all be spending years in Pakistani prison, far away from their families. That's coming up.
First, he disparaged his civilian bosses, and now he's out. We're talking about the fall of General Stanley McChrystal and about how his contemptuous words about his civilian bosses might affect the men and women fighting the war in Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama moved quickly to get McChrystal's resignation. McChrystal got into hot water from a magazine story that included disdainful comments he and his aides made about Obama administration officials.
Here's the president on Wednesday.
President BARACK OBAMA: War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security. The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general.�It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system, and it erodes the trust that's necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.
COX: That, again, President Obama in the Rose Garden, standing with the new head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
Joining us now to discuss these recent events is Ed Dorn, the former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness under President Clinton and a professor of public affairs at the University of Texas. And with us here in studio is Howard Witt, senior managing editor of Stars and Stripes news, self-described as the military's independent news source.
Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.
Professor ED DORN (Public Policy, University of Texas): Thank you.
Mr. HOWARD WITT (Senior Managing Editor, Stars and Stripes): Thank you.
COX: Howard, my first question is to you. Let's start with the people on the frontlines. What are you hearing about their reaction, those who are fighting the war, about their general - how else can you say it - mouthing off about his civilian supporters?
Mr. WITT: Well, I think that what our reporters downrange have found is, first of all, most of the soldiers fighting the war don't have a lot of time to pay attention to the drama going on here in Washington. However, the largest theme that seems to emerge is a growing frustration among many of the frontline troops that they are being asked - under this counterinsurgency plan, this idea that you have to try to win the hearts and minds of the Afghans - that they're being asked to hold their fire too often, and that they themselves are being placed in greater danger because they feel as if, in many cases, they're not allowed to shoot back at the bad guys.
COX: So do you think that continuing the hearts-and-mind approach that began under Petraeus, and will presumably continue under him, will that be a problem for the troops there?
Mr. WITT: I think it's really - it's a mixed bag, because while we pick up a lot of this frustration about people having to hold their fire, you also find a lot of strains of people who think it is starting to work. A lot of frontline troops who say gradually, slowly, inch-by-inch, town-by-town, they are seeing some progress and taking and holding territory and winning over the local population. So I don't think we can say anything definitive in that regard, but I think that the troops in general will do what they're told to do, because that's, of course, what they're trained to do. And I think it's too soon to say that people would either be expecting a dramatic change or be impatient for a dramatic change.
COX: Ed Dorn, I would think that grumbling among troops is nothing new, but letting that grumbling seep out into the public is new, isn't it?
Prof. DORN: Grumbling among troops is not new. Grumbling among senior officers is something that's usually confined to very close quarters. And so one of the mysteries here is why General McChrystal allowed this reporter - whom he apparently did not know previously - to follow him and his staff around for close to a month listening in on what can only be described as locker room conversations.
COX: The president mentioned the breaking of the chain of command. Howard Witt, explain to people who don't know how important that chain of command is, and when it is broken, how important that is.
Mr. WITT: Well, the idea, of course, is that civilian control of military is paramount. And so the military officers are trained and inculcated with the idea that if you have disagreements, you raise them within in-house, and you don't speak publically against the commander-in-chief. But I thought what was most interesting in this whole episode was there was a report in Politico yesterday talking about how Obama or why Obama made the decision to dismiss General McChrystal.
And it wasn't so much based on the insults, the personal insults that were directed at the administration, but it was - what was it, the beginning of that Rolling Stone article, where there's a scene in which McChrystal and his top aides are basically disrespecting and scoffing at the French. And apparently, the president was very upset about that because the French, of course, are a key ally in this effort in Afghanistan, and the idea that their contribution would be diminished and mocked he just found to be incredibly corrosive to the entire effort.
COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin, talking about the replacement of Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus.
I am joined by Howard Witt, senior managing editor of Stars and Stripes news, and Ed Dorn, former Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
Ed Dorn, one more question about the chain of command. I'm told that it is significant that the president accepted McChrystal's resignation, as opposed to firing him outright. What's the difference?
Prof. DORN: As a practical matter, there is no difference. But politicians understand that you've got to do these face-saving things. It's been a long time since a president actually has fired somebody. Remember, George Bush didn't fire Don Rumsfeld. He accepted his resignation. But it's essentially the same thing. And McChrystal, I'm sure, walked into the Oval Office with a written resignation in hand because I think he knew what was happening.
Let me mention something about the earlier conversation, when you asked about the reaction of soldiers and the chain of command. My guess is that while the soldiers in the field don't have much time to think about these higher politics, the senior brass in the Pentagon probably were appalled at what McChrystal said, and they probably would've been upset if he had not been relieved.
COX: Does this have, do you think, Ed Dorn, the potential for a chilling effect in terms of people in the military and their willingness to speak their minds going forward?
Prof. DORN: I don't think so. Howard Witt described the situation very well early on, that it's the responsibility of the generals to provide their best advice to their commander-in-chief in private, and when the decision is made, to salute and continue to follow the orders.
Now there is a little bit of a tension here, because a lot of us were concerned that during the Iraq war, when a number of senior officers were in very strong disagreement with the Bush strategy, that they did not speak out. So this is a delicate balance. I think everybody recognizes, however, that General McChrystal stepped way over the line. And this was the second time he'd done it, remember, because he'd leaked a memo very soon after he was appointed that kind of stemmed in(ph) the president's choices in Afghanistan. So this was clearly a commander who was determined to get his way whether or not it made the administration uncomfortable.
COX: On a more parochial note, if I may, Howard Witt - because you are the senior managing editor of Stars and Stripes news, a military publication - what does this do to your job in terms of trying to get news out about what is occurring and how people within the military are feeling about their day-to-day lives, and particularly about the war in Afghanistan?
Mr. WITT: It doesn't really change anything for us. I mean, we operate independently by the charter from Congress. We are obliged to be an independent news source. We're not told what to do by the Pentagon. So we face the same struggles that every other journalist does, and that is to try to get to the frontlines, to try to get people to speak their minds, to try to assess what's happening in front of us. So that doesn't really change.
COX: The president said that this isn't about personalities, the change from McChrystal to Petraeus. Ed Dorn, is that completely true?
Prof. DORN: It's at least partly true. But clearly, you can't have a general disparaging other members of the administration. To that extent, I think it's sort of a mix of personal and, if you will, political or policy related. Certainly, very disparaging remarks about Vice President Biden couldn't go without some kind of response.
But if I may Tony, I want to make a broader point here, which is that McChrystal was in an extraordinarily difficult position, and General Petraeus is inheriting an extraordinarily tough job.
As Howard Witt pointed out, General Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency in Iraq, and he appears to have been relatively successful there. Afghanistan is going to be a much, much, much tougher slog.
COX: Would you expect, either of you, as we bring our conversation to a close, would you expect this change at the top in terms of the war in Afghanistan to -even though the president has said he is not changing his overall strategy, do you think that this will have either an immediate or a longer term impact on America's ability to win that war? Howard?
Mr. WITT: I think it represents stay the course for now, but you can simply say that the entire effort is under constant and ongoing review because of the growing political pressures that the president faces domestically to try to extricate the United States from this war, which is now the longest war in American history.
COX: What do you say Ed Dorn? Because some have suggested that the change could go either way in terms of either making it better or worse, potentially, for the United States on the ground in Afghanistan.
Prof. DORN: I don't think the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is going to change materially. I don't think the strategy is going to change materially. General Petraeus was involved in crafting that strategy after all. But what this article did not succeed in doing - it succeeded in getting a good general fired. It did not succeed in helping the American public understand the extraordinary challenge that we are facing in Afghanistan.
COX: Ed Dorn is the former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. Howard Witt is the senior managing editor of Stars & Stripes news.
Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.
Mr. WITT: Thank you.
Prof. DORN: Thank you.