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06.23.10

Inside Obama's Tense Meeting

McChrystal's gone—and now Obama wants his team’s infighting and petty drama to stop. Sources close to Wednesday’s meeting tell Lloyd Grove about Obama's "stern" warning.

Cut the crap.

That was President Obama’s message Wednesday to his bickering national security and foreign policy team after accepting the resignation of four-star Gen. Stanley McChrystal—who, until that moment, was the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

“His tone was stern,” said a high-level source familiar with the meeting in the White House Situation Room, called to address the fallout from a Rolling Stone article quoting McChrystal and his aides as trashing rivals in the administration.

“People elbowing one another for a better slot—Obama just doesn’t like that. His sobriquet is ‘no drama.’ This was more than drama; this was melodrama. This was operatic.”

The president admonished a group that included the Secretaries of Defense and State, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton; Vice President Biden; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen; the Commander of the U.S. Central Command and McChrystal’s immediate boss, General David Petraeus, who is replacing the ousted McChrystal in Afghanistan; the national security adviser, former Marine commandant General James Jones; and special envoy Richard Holbrooke.

“He said to those in the room, ‘We have to remember why we’re doing this,’” the source told me. “The president said he didn’t want to see pettiness, that this was not about personalities or reputations—it’s about our men and women in uniform and about serving our country.”

Another source with knowledge of the proceedings said the president’s words had a “sobering impact”—this, on the same day The New York Times reported that Jones and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, had been conspiring against Holbrooke in a bureaucratic battle: In February, the Times reported, Jones wrote a letter to Eikenberry to second his complaints about the hard-charging Holbrooke—who, Eikenberry protested, had been hurting relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai—and predicting that Holbrooke would soon be removed.

Secretary Clinton, who has supported Holbrooke, complained to the president—and Holbrooke so far has kept his job. In the Rolling Stone article, one of McChrystal’s aides is quoted as calling Jones a “clown.” This is just the sort of infighting that drives the disciplined Obama nuts.

“I think that everybody has been shaken by this, and Stan paid the ultimate price,” the second source told me. “If this doesn’t focus them, nothing will. People elbowing one another for a better slot—Obama just doesn’t like that. His sobriquet is ‘no drama.’ This was more than drama; this was melodrama. This was operatic. …The waters are now calm, but there is blood in the water.”

As for what possessed McChrystal to allow a journalist into his inner circle to report their offhand, often juvenile comments about competitors (one of the general’s top advisers calls Biden “Bite Me” in the Rolling Stone piece), there are any number of theories. An informed observer offered a compelling one: that McChrystal’s aides (who, as members of the warrior culture, felt free to disregard the Obama White House’s obsessive need to control the message) were expecting yet another puff piece celebrating their boss as a Jedi knight. And that McChrystal—who spent much of his stellar military career operating behind the scenes, with hardly any experience dealing with reporters—is contemptuous of the press and didn’t appreciate the gravity of the situation.

Apparently, until Tuesday, he was boasting to colleagues that he hadn’t even bothered to read the Rolling Stone article. He has now.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.