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Obama calls McChrystal on carpet over interview

General summoned by ‘angry’ president

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Call it the rolling stone that might flatten a general.

An "angry" President Obama summoned the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan back to Washington "to see what in the world he was thinking" when the general and his staff criticized and ridiculed top members of the administration in interviews with Rolling Stone magazine.

Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday the president was angered when he read the article, in which Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal accused U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry of "cover(ing) his flank for the history book," and his aides called National Security Adviser James L. Jones "a clown" and compared special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke to "a wounded animal."

Gen. McChrystal quickly apologized Tuesday for his comments as Washington buzzed with speculation that he would be fired or forced to resign when he meets with Mr. Obama on Wednesday at the White House.

Amid reports that the general had already privately offered to resign, the president took a measured tone on the controversy in brief remarks after a Tuesday afternoon Cabinet meeting.

"I think it is clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment," Mr. Obama said, "but I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."

In a sign of the seriousness of the incident, the White House said Tuesday evening that Mr. Obama was canceling a long-planned meeting with congressional leaders on energy policy, in part to clear his schedule to deal with the latest crisis to hit his Afghan policy.

Mr. Gibbs pointedly declined to say that Gen. McChrystal's job was safe during a daily news briefing that was dominated by questions about the Rolling Stone interview and the general's status.

"I would say all options are on the table," he replied, when asked whether the president had decided to sack Gen. McChrystal.

When asked whether firing the top general in the middle of a war wouldn't be too disruptive, he replied: "Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person."

One of Congress' most powerful members, Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and the head of the House Appropriations Committee, wasn't waiting for Wednesday.

"If he actually said half of what is being reported, he shouldn't be in the position he is in," Mr. Obey said in a statement. "His repeated contempt for the civilian chain of command … is something that we simply cannot afford."

Other senior Democrats on the Hill were less outspoken.

"All of us would be better served by just backing off and staying cool and calm and not succumbing to the normal Washington twitter about this in the next 24 hours," said Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

His counterpart on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, also played down the general's comments, calling it "significant that, while the reported comments reflect personality differences, they do not reflect differences in policy on prosecuting the war."

In the article, titled "The Runaway General," Rolling Stone magazine paints a profanity-laced portrait of a tight-knit group of aides around Gen. McChrystal, of whom the Afghanistan commander says, "I'd die for them. And they'd die for me."

"Part of the problem," writes the magazine's reporter, Michael Hastings, "is personal: In private, Team McChrystal likes to talk [s - - t] about many of Obama's top people."

On Tuesday, Gen. McChrystal reached out to several of those mentioned in the article to apologize, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said in a statement.

A civilian press aide to Gen. McChrystal, Michael Boothby, quit over the imbroglio, a defense official who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters told The Washington Times.

"He tendered his resignation, and it was accepted," the official said. Mr. Boothby was reportedly involved in securing the close access Mr. Hastings had to the general and his entourage over a number of weeks.

Other aides to the general who have previously briefed reporters on background had their phones switched off or were otherwise unavailable.

Gen. McChrystal apologized in a statement for what he called a "mistake reflecting poor judgment" and said the interviews "should never have happened."

He will be expected to explain his comments to the president and other officials in meetings Wednesday, Mr. Gibbs said.

Faced with escalating violence in Afghanistan and a looming self-imposed deadline to begin U.S. troop withdrawals next summer, Mr. Obama has faced criticism of his war conduct from both the left and the right.

Since a lengthy review of his Afghan war strategy last year, Mr. Obama has been viewed with suspicion in some military circles as someone indecisive who overthinks military decisions. At the same time, his escalation and troop surge in Afghanistan has troubled many supporters in the Democratic base who see the U.S. getting mired in another unwinnable foreign war.

But James Carafano, a defense scholar with the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said that the administration had "overplayed its hand," and was "raising the profile of the story" in a bid to make Mr. Obama look tough.

"Why not just say, 'He's apologized. That's it,' and kill the story dead," Mr. Carafano told The Times.

"To try and spin it for domestic politics to make the president look stronger doesn't make sense. … You end up weakening" Gen. McChrystal.

Mr. Carafano said that though the general's comments were "beyond the pale, completely unacceptable," he could not believe he would be fired.

"In the middle of a war … that would be nuts," he said.

Nonetheless, speculation was rife Tuesday that Gen. McChrystal would offer his resignation and that the president would accept it.

He is already viewed as having two strikes against him because of prior comments about Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and the disclosure of a dire assessment of the Afghanistan war that led to a request for more troops.

Although the harshest words in the article come from anonymous McChrystal aides, the general himself called Mr. Obama's lengthy review of his request for tens of thousands more troops as an unpleasant experience.

"I found that time painful. … I was selling an unsellable position," the magazine quotes him as saying.

Very few military leaders have ever publicly spoken in such terms about their commander in chief. When they have, the consequences have often been more than just a reprimand.

Article 88 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice directs that any officer using "contemptuous words" about the president, the vice president, or other top officials can be court-martialed.

Washington pundits already were comparing the issue Tuesday to the most famous military-civilian showdown in U.S. history, with CBS News titling one segment on its website "Obama, McChrystal Like Truman, MacArthur?"

In that conflict, President Truman removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as head of the U.S.-led forces during the Korean War after he violated orders on press interactions and publicly called for expanding the war into China as a general crusade against Asian communism. At the time, Truman was trying to engage China in cease-fire and peace talks.

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