Remarks put general’s job in peril

McChrystal ordered to White House following criticism of top officials

By Bryan Bender and Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Army General Stanley A. McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, returns to the White House today with his job in jeopardy, as he faces a grilling from President Obama over disparaging comments he and his aides made about the president, vice president, and other political leaders.

The comments, printed in an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone magazine, were roundly denounced in Washington yesterday as a glaring breach of military protocol, if not outright insubordination by a key commander of US troops abroad.

The distracting drama — at the height of a crucial summer campaign against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan — triggered a number of calls for McChrystal’s immediate removal from command. Names of possible replacements began circulating on Capitol Hill.

But some members of Congress took a more noncommittal approach, including Senator John F. Kerry, even though criticism of him by an unnamed McChrystal aide was included in the article.

A White House spokesman, describing Obama as “angry’’ about the comments, hinted strongly yesterday that McChrys tal’s job was on the line, saying “all options are on the table.’’ The president himself said he would not decide whether to fire McChrystal until after he had talked to him directly.

“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,’’ Obama said.

McChrystal will arrive at the meeting prepared to hand in his resignation, according to two military officials who spoke with the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Seeking to minimize the damage caused by his remarks, McChrystal apologized in a series of calls to top officials and in a public statement.

“It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,’’ the general said.

But it was unclear whether apologies would be enough to repair the most significant conflict between a president and a wartime commander since 1951, when President Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his Far East command.

McChrystal is the architect of Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan, including the president’s decision last year to add 30,000 more troops to the conflict. But he also has been prone to public blunders, including last year when he said it was “shortsighted’’ of Vice President Joe Biden to call for a more limited mission.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that the general made a “significant mistake’’ with his quotes in Rolling Stone, but Gates did not make any predictions about his ultimate fate.

Asked whether it was possible for McChrystal to remain in his job, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “It’s difficult, but it may not be impossible.’’

“I think the president’s focus . . . is the successful implementation of policy in Afghanistan,’’ the Michigan Democrat told the Globe. “That’s the litmus test.’’

Senator Susan M. Collins, Republican of Maine, who also sits on the armed services panel, called McChrystal’s comments “very troubling.’’

“It’s very rare for a general to make comments like that,’’ she said. “I still think we owe it to General McChrystal to hear his explanation, given his extraordinary service to the country. But it’s difficult to imagine what the explanation could be.’’

McChrystal was returning to Washington for today’s meeting amid increasing questions about slow progress in the war, including the possibility that a deadline of July 2011 that Obama set to begin reducing troop levels is unrealistic.

In the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal and his staff, who granted unusual access to Michael Hastings, a freelance reporter, are depicted as openly disdainful of Biden; Richard C. Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan; and James L. Jones, the president’s national security adviser.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden,’’ McChrystal said laughing, as described in the article. “Who’s that?’’

“Biden?’’ an aide interjects. “Did you say: Bite me?’’

At another point, McChrystal makes clear his dislike of Holbrooke, a career diplomat. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’’ he is quoted as saying while checking his BlackBerry. “I don’t want to open it.’’

At another point, an aide refers to Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, as a “clown’’ who is “stuck in 1985.’’

Some of the criticism is also directed at Obama, including comments by an unnamed McChrystal adviser who talks about the first meeting between McChrystal and the president.

“It was a 10-minute photo-op,’’ the adviser is quoted as saying. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.’’

Members of Congress, including Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has played an influential role in fashioning administration policy, are also criticized by McChrystal’s inner circle. They “turn up, have a meeting with [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows,’’ one aide says. “Frankly, it’s not very helpful.’’

Kerry, who said he received a call from McChrystal yesterday, urged in a statement not to let the drama “distract anyone from the mission at hand.’’

“Everyone needs to take a deep breath and give the president and his national security team the space to decide what is in the best interest of our mission, and to have their face-to-face discussion tomorrow without a premature Washington feeding frenzy,’’ the Massachusetts Democrat said.

But McChrystal’s comments, which the magazine’s editor said yesterday were checked with the general before publication, also underscored the divide between the military and diplomats in Afghanistan. The diplomatic effort is overseen by US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former general who commanded US forces there earlier in the war.

Speaking about a secret cable from Eikenberry that was leaked to the press last year, in which he raised doubts about McChrystal’s strategy and the viability of the Afghan government, McChrystal told Rolling Stone he felt “betrayed.’’

This controversy is not the first time that McChrystal, a career special forces soldier who helped carry out former president George W. Bush’s surge strategy in Iraq, has been accused of publicly contradicting the views of top political leaders.

After delivering a speech in London last year, just as the White House was completing its review of Afghanistan strategy, McChrystal dismissed Biden’s proposals to focus the effort on capturing and killing Al Qaeda rather than the broader counterinsurgency strategy that McChrystal advocated and was ultimately adopted. The remark drew a rebuke from Gates, who insisted that such views should be aired privately, and McChrystal was also summoned for a dressing down by Obama aboard Air Force One.

The White House was also furious when McChrystal’s own secret assessment of the war, calling for 40,000 additional troops, was leaked to the press before Obama completed his own review. Top officials suspected the general’s staff was putting pressure on the new president to send more troops.

Some said yesterday that this time McChrystal had gone too far, even crossing legal lines.

“To speak derogatorily of the president or vice president is an offense under the code of military justice,’’ said Martin L. Cook, a professor of military ethics at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. “Most officers know to stay a long way away from that line, including tolerating statements said in one’s presence.’’

“For a commander to tolerate that is completely unacceptable,’’ he added.

In a joint statement, a trio of military hawks — Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut — called the general’s statements “inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander in chief and the military,’’ adding that “the decision concerning General McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the president.’’

The war recently claimed its 1,000th American casualty and is sparking mounting doubts on the left about what can be accomplished there and GOP worries that the Obama administration will pull out too early.

“Obviously a general and his top brass don’t make statements like these without being frustrated,’’ Representative Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican and the House minority whip, said in a statement.

“I hope that the president’s meeting with General McChrystal will include a frank discussion about what is happening on the ground, and whether the resources and the plans are there to defeat terrorists and accomplish our mission.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at Susan Milligan can be reached at