WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rebuked his Afghanistan war commander for “poor judgment” Tuesday and considered whether to fire him in the most extraordinary airing of military-civilian tensions since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command a half century ago.
The White House summoned Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Washington to explain disparaging comments about his commander in chief and Obama’s top aides. The meeting set for Wednesday was a last-ditch moment for the general once considered the war’s brightest hope.
If not insubordination, the remarks in a forthcoming Rolling Stone magazine article were at least an indirect challenge to civilian management of the war in Washington by its top military commander.
“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed a poor — showed poor judgment,” the president said, surrounded by members of his Cabinet at the close of their meeting. “But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.”
A senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan told the Associated Press the general has been given no indication that he’ll be fired — but no assurance he won’t be. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions between Washington and the general’s office in Kabul.
The eruption comes as the war and public support for it are at a tipping point, a perilous time to change military leadership. A majority of Americans now say the war is probably not worth fighting, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that public dissatisfaction means the U.S.-led international coalition must show progress this year.
A crucial military push to pacify the Taliban heartland in southern Afghanistan is going more slowly than McChrystal had planned, and showing fewer solid results. Marines in Helmand Province are in near-daily firefights, months after a push there was supposed to clear out the bulk of Taliban fighters.
McChrystal has spent the past several weeks arguing that the U.S.-led military effort is gaining momentum against the Taliban, while Gates argued for time to show that McChrystal’s many changes in strategy and tactics can succeed.
As support for the general drained in Washington, the showdown was set to take place in two parts — as part of Obama’s regular monthly war meeting, in which McChrystal usually participates by videoconference, and a separate discussion with Obama in the Oval Office.
Several names circulated among Pentagon and Capitol Hill aides as potential successors. Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the White House meeting, said the administration has not reached out to possible successors, but might do so on Wednesday.
“We all serve at the pleasure of the president,” said Gen. James Mattis, one of those mentioned. “I have a pretty full plate here,” in his current job as Joint Forces Command chief, Mattis said.
Other names include Lt. Gen. John Allen, the No. 2 at U.S. Central Command; Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal’s No. 2 in Afghanistan; Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO commander in Europe.
Wisconsin Democrat Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called for McChrystal to resign. Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee that approved McChrystal for the job, was among three prominent Republican senators to criticize the general and say a decision about his future should rest with Obama.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said: “I couldn’t believe Gen. McChrystal, being the good soldier I think he is, at least in this article not being a very good soldier.”
McChrystal publicly apologized Tuesday for using “poor judgment” in the magazine interviews. He then left Afghanistan for the meeting in Washington.
There has been no similar public contretemps between a president and a top wartime commander since Truman relieved MacArthur of his Far East command in 1951. MacArthur bid farewell in an address to Congress in which he quoted a line from a ballad: “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”
McChrystal will also meet separately with Gates, who issued a stern scolding to McChrystal on Tuesday that contains no endorsement for him to remain in his job. Gates hand-picked McChrystal to take over the war last year, calling him a driven visionary with the guts and smarts to turn the war around. Obama fired the previous commander at Gates’ recommendation.
Military leaders rarely challenge their commander in chief publicly and when they do, consequences tend to be more severe than a scolding.
In the article, McChrystal did not criticize Obama directly but called the period last fall when Obama was deciding whether to approve more troops “painful” and said the president was handing him an “unsellable” position.
McChrystal also said he was “betrayed” by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner in Afghanistan. He accused Eikenberry of raising doubts about the reliability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed.
And he was quoted joking that he doesn’t recognize Vice President Joe Biden’s name.
McChrystal has a history of drawing criticism, despite his military achievements.
Obama called him on the carpet last fall for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops.