Is Obama dropping "no drama" style with U.S. general?

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 22, 2010 4:59pm EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House, following a meeting with health insurers and state insurance commissioners, in Washington, June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House, following a meeting with health insurers and state insurance commissioners, in Washington, June 22, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Forget No-drama Obama.

An infuriated U.S. president is hauling his top general in Afghanistan to the White House, job hanging in the balance, to explain "what in the world he was thinking" when he and his aides mocked their commander-in-chief and his team.

After reading General Stanley McChrystal's complaints in a Rolling Stone magazine article entitled "The Runaway General," Obama departed from his calm, deliberative style. He wasted little time in ordering him to fly halfway around the world to face the music on Wednesday.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, speaking more bluntly and emphatically than usual at his daily briefing on Tuesday, said "the magnitude and greatness of the mistake here are profound" and repeatedly declined to say McChrystal's job was safe.

"All options are on the table," he told reporters.

Gibbs said he gave Obama a copy of the article on Monday night and the president twice left the White House residence and went to the Oval Office to confer with his advisers.

"He was angry," Gibbs said.

How so? a reporter asked. "You would know it if you saw it," Gibbs said tersely.

The public talk of presidential pique raises strong questions whether McChrystal will be able to save his job.

Obama risks looking weak on insubordination if he lets McChrystal stay, especially with some leading lawmakers calling for the general's head.

But Obama also could be accused of undermining his own Afghan war strategy -- already facing steep obstacles -- if at such a pivotal moment he cuts loose the commander he appointed to implement it. Success or failure in Afghanistan will be a major part of Obama's foreign policy legacy.

"The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking," Gibbs said of McChrystal. He pointedly insisted, however, that the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan was "bigger than one person."

LOOKING FOR MORE "ASS TO KICK?"

The McChrystal controversy is the last thing Obama needs as he struggles with a devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico while dealing with high unemployment and a stuttering economy that threaten his fellow Democrats in November's pivotal congressional elections.

It is also another test of the "No-drama Obama" style he cultivated during the presidential campaign and has instilled as his presidential demeanor.

Obama has been widely criticized for not showing enough anger and emotion over the oil spill, the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. But he won praise for his uncharacteristic comment that he was looking for an "ass to kick."

McChrystal has apologized for the Rolling Stone article, which quotes his aides calling one top Obama official a "clown" and another a "wounded animal." The general himself made belittling remarks in the article about Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

The article also quoted a McChrystal adviser dismissing an early meeting with Obama as a "10-minute photo op."

"Obama clearly didn't know anything about him, who he was," the adviser told the magazine. "Here's the guy who's going to run his (expletive) war but he didn't seem very engaged. The boss was pretty disappointed."

Gibbs, asked about whether Obama was in fact disengaged, said McChrystal would have Obama's "undivided attention" on Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Patricia Zengerle and Alister Bull; Editing by Bill Trott)