By Roxana Tiron - 06/23/10 12:46 AM EDT
President Barack Obama will confront Gen. Stanley McChrystal at the White House Wednesday and may fire his top commander in Afghanistan.
The White House did not explicitly say McChrystal would be fired ahead of the meeting, but said “all options are on the table.”
The general was recalled to Washington to meet with the president. Obama said he wanted to hear what McChrystal had to say.
“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment,” Obama said in remarks following a Cabinet meeting Tuesday afternoon. “But I also want to make sure I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions.
“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 of those men and women over there,” he said.
As of press time, there were reports that McChrystal offered his resignation ahead of his meeting with the president, but neither the White House nor the Pentagon would comment.
It’s not unusual for a general to offer his resignation after such a controversy, but the president would have to accept it.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized McChrystal’s comments, and several leading Democrats have called for his head.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs described Obama as “angry” after he read the Rolling Stone article.
“I would say all options are on the table,” Gibbs said when asked if McChrystal could be fired. “The president will speak with General McChrystal about his comments, and we’ll have more to say after that meeting.
“Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person,” he noted.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a statement Tuesday that McChrystal made “a significant mistake and exercised poor judgment in this case.”
Gates is expected to meet with McChrystal before the general heads to the White House. Gates’s reaction to the discussion with McChrystal could carry significant weight in how the president moves forward with his decision.
McChrystal issued a swift apology on Monday night, in which he did not refute the Rolling Stone comments.
“It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talked with McChrystal about the article, said Mullen’s spokesman, Capt. John Kirby.
“The Chairman is deeply disappointed by the article and about the comments made therein,” Kirby said.
In the article both McChrystal and his aides speak derisively about Vice President Joe Biden, who was called “Bite-me”; U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry; Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan; and National Security Adviser James Jones, whom an unnamed McChrystal aide calls a “clown.” McChrystal and his staff did have praise for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The piece also reveals that McChrystal and Obama failed to connect from the outset, and describes the general and his staff drinking. Most of the disparaging comments were made by unnamed McChrystal aides.
Lawmakers called the statements in Rolling Stone “troubling,” but a wide majority of them said that the ultimate decision of whether McChrystal should be fired is Obama’s alone.
“That’s a decision for the president to make,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Meanwhile, his GOP counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), stressed that the United States should focus “on the mission at hand,” which is the war in Afghanistan.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) told The Hill on Tuesday that he did not see how McChrystal could keep his job as the top commander leading the war in Afghanistan.
Dorgan called the quotes in the article “inexcusable.”
“He will go,” Dorgan said Tuesday. “That is not something that is tolerable. You cannot have a general in the field who is referring to the national security adviser, an ambassador, the vice president, the president in ways that General McChrystal referred to them.”
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the leading Senate Democrat on military matters, said Tuesday that while he was troubled by McChrystal’s reported comments, they “do not reflect differences in policy on prosecuting the war.”
Levin did stress the comments reflected “personality differences” that can “negatively impact the successful implementation of policy.”
“That must be avoided,” said Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our troops and our nation surely deserve that.”
Levin’s GOP counterpart on the committee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), issued a joint statement with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) in which he stopped short of calling for McChrystal’s removal.
“We have the highest respect for General McChrystal and honor his brave service and sacrifice to our nation. General McChrystal’s comments, as reported in Rolling Stone, are inappropriate and inconsistent with the traditional relationship between Commander-in-Chief and the military,” the senators said. “The decision concerning General McChrystal’s future is a decision to be made by the president of the United States.”
Should McChrystal be relieved of his command he would most likely retire immediately. He may be able to keep his four stars with a special waiver because he did not serve enough time in his rank and position to be able to outright retire as a four-star general.
McChrystal’s public shaming comes at a difficult time for Obama. He will have to decide how to handle the general as public and congressional support for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has dwindled after a series of setbacks, particularly in the southern part of that country.
Pentagon and military officials have been trying to allay congressional concerns over Afghanistan and retain support for the president’s strategy.
Now, Obama finds himself in a tough spot in which the decision of whether or not to remove McChrystal comes with a set of challenges: If Obama fires the top general in Afghanistan he risks casting even more doubt over the mission there; if he keeps him with just a slap on the wrist, Obama likely will invite criticism that he has lost control over his generals.
A visibly angry Gibbs on Tuesday said the Rolling Stone article detracted from the U.S. focus on winning its military effort in Afghanistan, over which McChrystal is in charge. The general had pushed for the “surge” in the country, which Obama endorsed over the reservations of some in the administration.
It’s not the first time that McChrystal has been seen as stepping out of line.
Last fall, McChrystal spoke bluntly about his desire for more troops in Afghanistan before Obama had reached a decision. McChrystal’s leaked review and dire call for another 40,000 troops infuriated the White House at the time.
Also last year, McChrystal landed in hot water after giving a speech in London where he criticized Biden’s counterterrorism strategy.
After that speech, McChrystal was called to Air Force One to meet with the president, who was in Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s unsuccessful Olympic bid.
Rolling Stone reported the story over the course of several months, the magazine’s executive editors said on MSNBC on Tuesday.
“We were with him on a trip in Europe that wound up getting extended because of the volcano in Iceland,” the executive editor said. “So, our reporter was kind of trapped with him for about two weeks in Paris and traveling from Paris to Berlin. They couldn’t fly, so they had to take a bus. So, we really spent a lot of time with him and really got to look behind the curtain, and hear how he and his men, top men, talk among themselves on their own.”
— J. Taylor Rushing and Michael O’Brien contributed to this report.