WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will confront Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal today 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 Newspapers 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 Newspapers 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.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai supported McChrystal on Tuesday, saying he 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.