On the carpet: Prez to meet with Gen. McChrystal over his remarks in 'Rolling Stone' critical of the administration

Posted: June 23, 2010

THE WAR halfway around the world wasn't going that well for the United States or its allies, and the public was already unhappy over the conflict even before some inflammatory statements from the highly regarded general - including some that were critical of the Democratic president - found their way into the headlines.

And so the president fired the general - on April 10, 1951, the day that Harry Truman gave the ax to the commander of his forces in the Korean War, Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

And so will history repeat itself, now that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and his top aides unleashed numerous criticisms of the Obama administration and its leadership of the nearly 8-year-old war in a remarkably unguarded series of interviews with Rolling Stone?

President Obama's chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, called McChrystal's comments an "enormous mistake," but it remained unclear whether the general - who was winging his way to Washington last night - would be fired, although Obama reportedly wanted to meet with him.

McChrystal will arrive prepared to hand in his resignation, two military officials told the Associated Press last night.

Until today's meeting, as is so often the case, we have more questions about the McChrystal affair than we have answers.

Q. What on earth were McChrystal and his staff thinking?

A. That's one of the questions with no good answer. The one thing that's clear is that, in an age of so many journalistic job cutbacks, there is no substitute for being there. Freelance writer Michael Hastings, who wrote the Rolling Stone piece, was hoping to get two days with the general.

But thanks to travel disruptions because of the volcano in Iceland last spring, he hung out for a whole month with Team McChrystal, including a boozy bus ride to Berlin on which some of the racier comments by the general's aides were made.

Q. What were some of those racier comments?

A. Vice President Joe Biden is the target of the most talked-about remarks, in which McChrystal asks mockingly, "Who's that?" of Biden followed by an aide who adds, "Bite me?" (Tellingly, the Washington Post says that it was an angry Biden who called Obama on Monday night to tell him of the article.)

But there are divisive remarks about other officials, including National Security Adviser James Jones, a retired general who one anonymous aide refers to as "a clown." McChrystal is surely grateful that there's no similar quote about Obama, but the article makes clear that McChrystal and his aides are disappointed in the president's leadership so far.

Q. Could you see this coming?

A. Yes, there has been tension between the White House and the field commander since last fall, when McChrystal brazenly lobbied - successfully - for more troops. However, their differences don't yield to easy caricature. One reason the general wanted more troops is that he believes it advances his goal of fewer civilian deaths from drone attacks.

Q. So . . . why not fire him?

A. Right - clearly the precedent has been established that civilian leaders need to show wayward military commanders who's the boss under the American system, not just in the famous Truman-MacArthur episode but more recently when Adm. William "Fox" Fallon was removed in 2008 for magazine comments criticizing the president, the only difference being that the magazine was Esquire and the president was George W. Bush.

"Obama needs to fire him," wrote Steve Clemons, who directs the America Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "If he doesn't, McChrystal's brand will be validated and the environment of insubordination and unprofessional conduct will be reinforced. If McChrystal survives his White House encounter, then Obama will be diminished."

Q. So is there an argument for not firing him?

A. Yes, which is that for all their differences, McChrystal has been in the middle of implementing Obama's policy, right when the ongoing effort in Afghanistan against the Taliban and in support of the government of Hamid Karzai seems to be at the tipping point.

"[T]he president must weigh the benefits of relieving his commander against an assessment of how badly General McChrystal's leadership is needed in Afghanistan," Nathaniel Fick, chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security, told a New York Times online debate. "If his strategic approach is the country's best option, and if the relationships he has developed are essential, then time is our most precious commodity, and the cost of changing commanders for the second time in 13 months is high - signaling strategic disarray to U.S. allies and adversaries alike."

But Craig Shirley, a former aide to Ronald Reagan who now works in public relations in Washington, had a different reason for not canning the general, telling Politico: "Surely within moments of his firing, McChrystal will sign with a major cable system, sign a book contract, sign with a speakers bureau and become a thorn in the administration's side for the foreseeable future. And Obama will lose one of his best generals."

Q. Is there anything we're missing here?

A. Yes - all the furor over McChrystal and his aides and their words may delay what's really needed: a debate over the foundering policy in Afghanistan, not over the personnel.

Q. What a mess. Did anyone come out ahead here?

A. Yes, the makers of Bud Light Lime, which apparently loosened the lips of the McChrystal aides, and is now garnering the relatively new brand of beer priceless publicity.