Friday, June 25, 2010
President Barack Obama dismissed Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, after the general made critical comments about the president in a magazine article. We discuss the local impact of McChrystal's ouster, and how the move might affect combat operations in Afghanistan.
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, the editors will explore whether the shock waves from the forced resignation of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan will reach San Diego, why calm beat out charisma in the choice of a new city schools superintendent, and why the San Diego City Council is so focused on downtown projects. The editors with me at Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times. Tony, it’s good to see you again.
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): And it is good to be seen.
PENNER: And you are being seen. And Barbara Bry is with us as well. She is co-publisher and Opinion Editor for SDNN.com. Barbara, I know you’re going on vacation soon so if I don’t say it again, happy vacation.
BARBARA BRY (Co-Publisher/Opinion Editor, SDNN.com): Thank you, Gloria.
PENNER: You’re welcome. And Ricky Young, Government Editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. I’m glad you made the trek from Mission Valley out to Montezuma Mesa, Ricky.
RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria. It’s nice to be here.
PENNER: Of course. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. Well, discipline and judgment, the common denominators of the military leader, plus loyalty to those who command you, none of those appear to be evident in General Stanley McChrystal’s remarks when he and his inner circle criticized the administration in an article in Rolling Stone magazine. The shock waves began even before the magazine hit the newsstands. So, Tony, let’s start with the big picture and then talk about local reaction. General McChrystal is no longer the top commander in Afghanistan. What were the comments that led to this?
PERRY: Well, there was a whole tenor of comments by McChrystal and some unnamed aides saying the real problem is the wimps in the White House, and referring to the Vice President as ‘Joe bite me’ and General Jim Jones, the National Security Advisor, as a clown and stuck in 1986, suggestions that Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador in Afghanistan, was only worried about his own reputation and therefore leaked out confidential information, and that Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy, was a loose cannon because he thinks he’s going to be fired, a whole list of small, snarky comments that, put together, rather irritated the President of the United States. And when you’re a general, a four star general, you have a constituency of one: the President, the Commander-in-Chief. And he lost the confidence of that constituency of one, and he had to go.
PENNER: Just another question on that before I turn to our listeners and ask them how they feel affected by the resignation, the firing really, the ouster of General McChrystal, or doesn’t it hit your radar yet. Tony, did those comments rise to the level of insubordination?
PERRY: Probably not insubordination but they rose to the level of losing the confidence. That’s all that has to happen. This isn’t civil service. You don’t get a list of deficiencies and time to correct and a hearing and an appeal. You lose the confidence of the boss, you’re out at that level. He lost it, he’s out.
PENNER: Barbara Bry.
BRY: Gloria, I’d also say it shows a lack – poor judgment on the part of McChrystal to give, you know, a reporter from Rolling Stone such close access to both him and to his aides. And I wonder who’s his press aide or, you know, communications director and, you know, that person should also probably lose their job.
PERRY: And he did.
YOUNG: There – yeah…
PERRY: He resigned immediately. He was a civilian with so-so credentials according to some accounts I’ve read. And he saw this coming in those last few days and he submitted his resignation.
PENNER: Well, I’m wondering if the author of the Rolling Stone article got a raise. I mean, he – that’s certainly probably one of the most well known articles that Rolling Stone has published in a very long time. Anyway, if you’d like to join our conversation about General McChrystal and how risky is it to change commanders in the middle of a war, our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. The president reacted almost immediately and out went McChrystal. Was that a wise thing for the president to do? Again, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let me turn to you, Ricky. You were going to say something, that his press aide resigned immediately.
YOUNG: Yeah, there was a lot of decisiveness here. I think there’s a lesson in this for General McChrystal, which is if you’re going to criticize the president for being indecisive, you might immediately be shown that that’s not the case. You know, there was some criticism of the long, drawn out decisions that went on in the fall, and I think the president showed that he responds to criticism that he’s indecisive by moving immediately on this. So…
PENNER: Tony, you, of course, are very familiar with the Marines at Camp Pendleton. You’ve been with them in various theaters of war for long periods of time. What kind of reaction are you getting from the military in San Diego about all this?
PERRY: None. None.
PERRY: There are 10,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton in Afghanistan. Every one of them is going to get up, or already did get up this morning, and do his job just like he would have if the Rolling Stone had never published what it published. It just doesn’t work that way. They’re going to go about their duties and do their jobs, and this mission is either going to succeed or fail depending on the conditions on the ground and who the man is with those four stars, be it McChrystal or David Petraeus, really at that level really doesn’t make much of a difference.
PENNER: Well, David – Yes, Barbara Bry.
BRY: Well, you know, I’m not a foreign policy expert so I’m -- You know, as a citizen, the president hasn’t yet done a good job of explaining to me why we need to be in Afghanistan and I wonder if he’s done a good job of explaining to the soldiers who are there? Do they feel, Tony, since you’ve been there, that this is a war worth fighting?
PERRY: They’re not as monolithic as you might think. I mean, the American military is segmented into various branches and then even those branches have what they call communities and they’re not, you know, just all one. However, I would say that the debate and the discord that you hear in this country really has no parallel once you get over there. Over there, the concept is stay alive today, get your mission done today, get home when you can. They believe in the mission. Now, should this be the mission that we send them on? That’s a whole ‘nother question. But I don’t see a lot of discord in their ranks about whether they ought to be doing this mission.
PENNER: Okay, but somebody here, I think it was either you, Tony, or Ricky, you mentioned David Petraeus. What was the reason to choose General David Petraeus to take over in Afghanistan? Doesn’t he already have a big job, Ricky?
YOUNG: Well, yeah, he’s the head of CENTCOM, as you know, and is largely…
PENNER: CENTCOM is…?
YOUNG: The Central Command in charge…
YOUNG: …the Middle East. And has been largely credited with making the surge work in Iraq. And, you know, I think there was just a feeling that he had earned trust and respect. And, honestly, a lot of the themes he sounds are those that McChrystal was sounding but maybe just a little – with a little more diplomacy.
PENNER: Well, it’s interesting. That means that he is leaving an opening now at CENTCOM so another high level person is going to have to be chosen. Will that new person then be the commander to whom David Petraeus reports?
PERRY: It doesn’t look like that. It looks as if they’ll have the number two man, who happens to be a Marine, take over. And even if they name a permanent number one, in the military, as in civilian life, there are job titles and then there are personalities and oftentimes a man has more authority based on his personality and his track record, his resume. Petraeus has quite a successful track record in Iraq. He has the confidence of the president. He has the confidence of the political class in Washington. So I wouldn’t look for him to be bossed around a lot even if they put somebody in to replace him at CENTCOM.
PENNER: Okay, well, let’s turn to our callers. They want to get in on this conversation. And we’ll start with Maryanne from Rancho Bernardo. Maryanne, you’re on with the editors.
MARYANNE (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Hello. I just think this, the reporter from Rolling Stone is just a rock star. In this day and age when our press is declining, that he could write such an explosive story and expose this wonderful – this story, it’s just awesome and I hope he does get a raise.
PENNER: Well, I’m sure he’s very happy with your call if he’s listening. Let me turn to Ricky on this. He wants to respond.
YOUNG: Yeah, the access he got was very impressive. The – What’s interesting to us when the magazines actually arrived, you were expecting it to be sort of played up but Lady Ga-Ga played up much bigger and the headline for it on the cover was tiny.
PENNER: So it’s just like…
YOUNG: I’m not sure they knew what they had on their hands.
PENNER: Probably not…
PENNER: …but here’s another follow-up to that, Ricky. Why would such a senior commander be so self-destructive? I mean, those remarks were, if not outrageous, somewhat outlandish as though nobody vetted them, so I’m wondering why that would happen?
YOUNG: Well, I think the access took place over weeks and weeks and over that time the general got more and more comfortable. The things he said, I imagine being said routinely, just not in front of reporters. And what happened is, I think some barriers came down and you saw what he really thought. And, you know, in a way it’s too bad that somebody speaking frankly and openly, which everybody should have the right to do, will see their career end this way.
PENNER: Well, thank you very much, Maryanne, for your call. That was interesting. Before I go back to the callers, I want to ask you something, Barbara. How emotionally engaged are the people here in the United States in the war in Afghanistan? Is that really up there in their consciousness?
BRY: I don’t think it’s number one and number two. I think number one is the economy and am I going to have a job next week? Or is my, you know, brother or my child going to have a job next week, and will I be able to afford my mortgage and to put, you know, my child through college? I think that’s really the number one issue for people in this country and I don’t know that many of us personally know someone who’s serving in Afghanistan. I mean, Tony certainly does because he’s covered the Marines, but most of us don’t. And I think it’s very different from the war in Vietnam when I think, you know, which is my era, when most of us knew someone who was serving and there was the draft. So it was a very different situation.
PENNER: More immediately threatening…
PENNER: …to most people.
PENNER: Kevin in Clairemont is with us now. Kevin, you’re on with the editors.
KEVIN (Caller, Clairemont): Yeah, thank you, and good morning. My feelings are of concern over the decision to terminate McChrystal. I think it’s premature in light of the major offensive that’s scheduled to happen in a few weeks here and in terms of continuity in command and the troop escalation. I’m just really concerned that General Petraeus is walking into a hornets’ nest here.
PENNER: So you really seem to know what’s going on with the war. You heard what I just asked Barbara Bry, whether people here are engaged in that war, and you seem to have some better understanding than Barbara feels that most people do.
KEVIN: I’m probably unusual in that I’m in a defense consulting firm working with a lot of the primes supporting the effort over there, so I’m probably not the typical citizen in that regard.
PENNER: But it’s interesting. Thank you very much, Kevin, for that remark. It’s interesting, Kevin – not Kevin, you’re Ricky – Ricky, that we do have a lot of people who are engaged…
PENNER: …in businesses that do business with the military. You would think there would be a pretty high level of interest in this.
YOUNG: Yeah, I think Kevin is more typical than Barbara might be suggesting in that this is a huge impact in San Diego, you know, not so much broad, you know, as when people were being drafted but, I mean, the military community here is huge and has been greatly affected by the endless deployments, you know, first to Iraq and now to Afghanistan. And I think they’d like to hear a coherent message coming out of the White House and the Pentagon that gives them some hope. And, as Barbara suggested, some idea that what they’re doing over there is worthwhile and won’t end up as so many other efforts have ended up by super powers in this land of tribal disputes. You know, it’s hard to see success coming out of it.
PENNER: Well, and…
YOUNG: No matter who’s in charge.
PENNER: Can we expect, Ricky, that the McChrystal incident will augment misgivings about the war effort here and among our NATO allies?
YOUNG: Well, I think as Tony said, I don’t know how much it matters to people on the front lines who’s in charge over there. You know, they’ll – there will continue to be a consistent message and that’s part of why he’s gone because Petraeus will pick up the baton and get on the right talking points and, you know, I guess the question is are they talking points that give people hope that eventually the deployments can stop and the war can stop.
PENNER: Okay, we’re going to take a fast break now. We’re talking about General Petraeus, the article in Rolling Stone, and reaction to that here in San Diego. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m at the table today with Barbara Bry from SDNN.com and Ricky Young from the Union-Tribune, Tony Perry from the Los Angeles Times. We’re talking about the flap over General Stanley McChrystal and the article in which he and his aides were quoted in Rolling Stone. And, of course, it cost him his job. And we’re talking about the effects on the war, the effects here in San Diego where we are so interrelated with what’s going on in the military and in the defense industry. And we’re getting your comments and they’re really fascinating, so let’s continue with our callers because they have some fascinating things to say. We’ll start with Mary in Valley Center. Mary, you’re on with the editors.
MARY (Caller, Valley Center): Good morning.
PENNER: Good morning.
MARY: I’ve always thought that Mr. McChrystal was iffy because of his disposition in the quietness about the death of Pat Tillman. I just thought that made him unworthy of consideration for anything.
PENNER: Do you want to give a touch of background for those people who aren’t quickly aren’t identifying who Pat Tillman is – was?
MARY: He was a football player, I think, from San Diego, who was in the Marines, I believe, and who was killed, and he was given the Medal of Honor and a big hoopla about our hero being killed. It later turned out that he was killed by friendly fire and McChrystal was part of the whole shebang. I’m not certain of his actual performance in that episode but I believe he was key to the elevation of Tillman as a great hero when he was a murder victim.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much. Tony.
PERRY: Well, Pat Tillman, who grew up in San Jose, played for the Arizona Cardinals and then became an Army soldier, Special Forces, was killed in Afghanistan. First he was lauded as a hero and given a Silver Star posthumously then it came out he was killed through friendly fire. At this stage, it appears to have been a mistake, the confusion of war, the fog of war, and he was killed. Not murder, as our caller suggests. The role of McChrystal, he wasn’t yet in the position he is now but he apparently was one of the first in command to know that it didn’t go down as it first appeared and he kept that from the Tillman family and for that he has been, as the caller has just done, scorned pretty heavily. But he did not suffer a career problem or career setback because of it.
PENNER: But, Tony, in a way that justifies a comment that I made when I was introducing the whole topic, whether the Rolling Stone’s article was the beginning of the end or the end of the story.
PENNER: In other words, what I’m saying is has McChrystal kind of laid a path for himself that was kind of dangerous to follow if you’re going to be not only a leader but a leader in the spotlight.
PERRY: From what I understand, and I have never met Stanley McChrystal, and if you look at the Rolling Stone story, he is a tough talker, he was a bit profane. He’s not the only military officer to use the f-word or to use the middle finger gesture. But he did do that, and he was a tough talker. He’s a lean, tough, beat any guy in the room kind of guy, and he swaggered and he talked that way. I know a Marine, very high level Marine who, when he talked to McChrystal in Iraq when they were both there, McChrystal shocked him by saying, you know, the only Iraqis I’ve ever met have bags on their head, in other words, people being interrogated, maybe quite roughly. And this Marine, who is no shrinking violet at the need to locate, close, engage and kill an enemy, was kind of shocked at that kind of tough talk, given the fact that the overall mission that McChrystal inherited in Afghanistan was hearts and minds, was not locate, close and engage. He had a habit of talking tough and profane and Michael Hastings, a very good reporter with a good reputation, who spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan, got this unusual access and wrote a story that neither McChrystal nor the aides, when given a chance by the fact checkers from Rolling Stone beefed about. They had said those things and they were going to stand by them. And McChrystal paid a price.
PENNER: And he did.
YOUNG: Gloria, Gloria…
YOUNG: I was just going to say it definitely was not the first time that McChrystal had been in a little trouble. There was the speech where he was critical of the vice president…
YOUNG: …there – and there were times during that long, agonizing decision making by the president where McChrystal kind of jumped the gun and said some things where he got in a little trouble then, too. So, you know, this is not a sudden revelation. This has been kind of building up, I think.
PENNER: So the bad boy has been really outed this time. Ricky, let me just ask you one other thing before we start wrapping up this segment, although I do want to get to one more caller here. The war’s been plagued with problems but yet the administration has a timetable for withdrawing the troops and now they have a new commander in Afghanistan. Do you know whether General Petraeus is onboard with that timetable of starting to pull the troops next July?
YOUNG: I would defer to Tony on that because…
PENNER: You would? Unless, Barbara, you know because Tony’s just been talking.
BRY: I don’t know. I don’t know, and I’m sure that Obama asked him this before giving him the position. And I think publicly at least he would say that he’s in line with the president. I have another comment about McChrystal which is, it was interesting when Tony said, you know, when the fact checkers from Rolling Stone, you know, were fact checking McChrystal, and his people didn’t back down. And, to me, it speaks of hubris in terms of I think sometimes people get into positions of power and they sort of think they’re immortal.
PENNER: Well, just think of Shakespeare. Hubris was the cause of so many of the Shakespearian tragedies.
PENNER: The tragic characters. Let’s go to Allison now in Tierrasanta, and I want to thank Mary for her call. Allison, you’re on with the editors and you are going to be our final call on the subject.
ALLISON (Caller, Tierrasanta): Okay, I just – I don’t think that the writer from Rolling Stone is a rock star. I think he’s just part of this continual media, go-with-the-flow, whatever’s the hot story. I mean, this reporter had access to McChrystal for a long time, obviously. There’s a bigger and better story out there than the snide comments that he made. And the media, you know, not too long ago, General Petraeus was labeled ‘General Betrayus’ so the media is just waving the wind, whatever’s the hot story of the moment. And I just think it’s a shame that this reporter didn’t actually get more of this real story going on in Afghanistan. And I’m glad that this kind of stuff doesn’t affect our troops out there on the line because it’s not that important in the big picture.
PENNER: Well, Allison, thank you so much. A very interesting comment. Tony, would you like to respond to that?
PERRY: Sure, let’s just – just a fact check here. The ‘General Betrayus’ that was an ad fostered by the Moveon.org folks who have a certain political viewpoint. It wasn’t picked up by the media, certainly not the attitude of the media. You can criticize Hastings and his story if you want. He has spent a lot of time and gotten his feet dirty with being out with the troops. He’s not some newbie, he’s not arrived with an agenda. It just happened that he got this incredible access and he laid it all out there.
PENNER: Okay, well, I’m afraid that we’re going to have to stop that right here. But it doesn’t mean that your comments can’t be read or heard. You can go to KPBS.org, our website, and go to KPBS.org/editors and you can put your comment on our website and we would be very happy to read it and take a look at it. Let’s move on.