Obama-McChrystal showdown may be pivotal moment

McClatchy NewspapersJune 22, 2010 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will confront Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Wednesday in a high-stakes showdown that could be a pivotal moment in America's longest war and a defining point of Obama's presidency.

Obama will meet the commander of the Afghanistan war face to face at the White House, a meeting that could end with the president reprimanding or firing McChrystal for making and condoning disparaging remarks about Obama, top members of his administration and a U.S. ally in a magazine article.

Several defense officials and officers told McClatchy on Tuesday that McChrystal has no choice but to offer his resignation. It will be up to the president whether to accept it. "The only issue here is whether he retains the confidence of the president," one senior defense official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the situation's sensitivity. "And only one person in this town knows the answer to that."

It would be Obama's second dismissal of the war's top general in little more than a year. In 2009 he dismissed Army Gen. David McKiernan at the urging of Pentagon brass and replaced him with McChrystal.

Whether the president rebukes or fires McChrystal — who issued a statement of apology Tuesday — it will be the first time that he'll have to react to publicly critical comments widely described as insubordination.

The decision could test Obama's standing as the commander in chief and invite comparisons with earlier conflicts over civilian control of the military, ranging from Abraham Lincoln's dismissal of Gen. George McClellan in 1862 during the Civil War to Harry Truman's 1951 firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.

"All options are on the table," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday when he was asked whether Obama might fire the general. "The magnitude and graveness of the mistake here are profound."

The president reacted with anger, Gibbs said, when he read the Rolling Stone magazine article in which McChrystal criticized Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and sat by while his top aides insulted Vice President Joe Biden after McChrystal himself had playfully said of Biden, "Who's that?"

The sniping underscored that divisions remain months after Obama approved McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy and some of the additional troops for Afghanistan the general had requested, plans that Biden and Eikenberry opposed as unworkable. In the article, McChrystal said that Eikenberry "covers his flank for the history books" by writing a dissenting memo, while his aides referred to Biden in the article as "bite me" and to White House National Security Adviser James Jones as a "clown." They also ridiculed French officials at a dinner McChrystal attended.

The president said Tuesday that the remarks by McChrystal and his team showed poor judgment but that "I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."

Obama said that "whatever decision that I make with respect to General McChrystal or any other aspect of Afghan policy is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there, and that ultimately makes this country safer."

Gibbs signaled that Obama remains committed to McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy, even if he questions the architect and commander of that strategy.

"This is bigger than anybody on the military or the civilian side," Gibbs said. "The president will say tomorrow that it is time for everyone involved to put away their petty disagreements, put away their egos and get to work implementing a strategy that we all agreed had the best chance for our success in Afghanistan in the coming years."

In a statement released as he raced back to Washington, McChrystal offered an apology.

"It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard," he said.

"I have enormous respect and admiration for President Obama and his national security team, and for the civilian leaders and troops fighting this war, and I remain committed to ensuring its successful outcome."

Obama faced pressure to punish McChrystal somehow to underscore civilian control of the military and that he won't abide open disrespect from a commander he'd chastised previously for other impolitic remarks.

The president summoned McChrystal to a meeting aboard Air Force One last year to upbraid him publicly for criticizing Biden as "shortsighted" in a speech in London. McClatchy reported last month that McChrystal called the military situation in Afghanistan's Helmand province a "bleeding ulcer," and he also was suspected of leaking his argument for more troops to the news media last summer as a way to pressure Obama to go along.

"His repeated contempt for the civilian chain of command demonstrates a bullheaded refusal to take other people's judgments into consideration," said Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"You've got to have discipline," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "There's got to be some clear action. And it can't be a slap on the wrist. There's got to be a clear public reprimand, at the very least."

In a joint statement, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called McChrystal's comments "inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between commander in chief and the military." They said his future "is a decision to be made by the president of the United States."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the general's remarks were inappropriate but didn't reflect the kind of broad policy disagreement that got Truman to fire MacArthur for advocating expanding the Korean War to China.

"It is very significant that, while the reported comments reflect personality differences, they do not reflect differences in policy on prosecuting the war," Levin said. However, he added, "personality differences can negatively impact the successful implementation of policy, and that must be avoided."

One high-ranking Republican lawmaker sided with McChrystal, saying that his complaints should be aired rather than condemned.

"Obviously, a general and his top brass don't make statements like these without being frustrated," said Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, his party's whip in the House of Representatives.

"So 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 plan are there to defeat terrorists and accomplish our mission in Afghanistan."

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., suggested that it might be unwise to change commanders again during the war.

"I hope we can keep our eye on the ball here, which is to win in Afghanistan and not get diverted off of that onto these other issues that seem to have developed," McConnell said.

McChrystal had another ally heading into the White House confrontation: Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai said Tuesday that McChrystal was the "best commander" in the war and urged that he remain in command, according to a spokesman in Kabul, Waheed Omar. Karzai also spoke with Obama by phone Tuesday.

McChrystal's adviser on media relations, Duncan Boothby, resigned Tuesday.

Tensions between the White House and the military have marked McChrystal's command ever since Obama put him in charge in March 2009.

Upon becoming commander, McChrystal conducted a 90-day review and concluded that he needed up to 80,000 more troops, the highest of three options. The administration, which had once said that the commander would get what he needed, instead publicly squabbled for months before agreeing to send another 30,000 troops.

In addition, the Obama administration announced that the commander had until December — four months after the completion of the troop "surge" — to show progress. Obama also said that a troop withdrawal would begin by July 2011, not long before the next presidential campaign cycle.

The Pentagon tried to adjust its position to the White House timetable. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who'd opposed timelines in a counterinsurgency when he served in the George W. Bush administration, said he supported this one because it created a sense of urgency among Afghans and their neighbors.

The uniformed military, however, never embraced the deadline. Instead, military officers say that the Afghan government and neighboring countries assume that the United States will abandon them and are making alliances around the American military, not working alongside it.

Just last week, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command, appeared on Capitol Hill and answered questions about whether he supported the July 2011 withdrawal timeline with a "qualified yes."

In hopes of reassuring its allies in the region, Pentagon officials have suggested that the withdrawal will be gradual and "conditions-based," and that the U.S. military presence will remain until Afghanistan is stable. However, Biden also told a reporter that "in July of 2011, you are going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it."

(Special correspondent Saeed Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this article.)

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