WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will confront his top Afghanistan commander on Wednesday before deciding whether to fire him over inflammatory comments that have angered the White House and threatened to undermine the war effort.
Summoned from Afghanistan to meet with Obama, Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be asked to explain remarks he and his aides made in a Rolling Stone magazine article that disparaged the president and mocked other senior civilian leaders.
The situation poses a tough dilemma for Obama, who faces the choice of either being seen as tolerating insubordination from the military or shaking up the chain of command at a perilous moment in the unpopular nine-year-old war.
Obama, described as furious about the article in private but speaking in measured tones in public, issued a stern rebuke to McChrystal and said he would talk directly to the general before making a final decision.
“I think it’s clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed poor judgment,” Obama told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
U.S. officials said they expected McChrystal, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan and architect of Obama’s war strategy, to offer his resignation and allow the president to decide whether to accept it.
With his career on the line, the 55-year-old general has apologized. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened,” McChrystal said in a statement.
In the article entitled "The Runaway General" -- here -- McChrystal himself makes belittling remarks about Vice President Joe Biden and the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. His aides are quoted as calling one top Obama official a "clown" and another a "wounded animal."
Afghanistan had slipped down Obama’s policy agenda recently as he focused on domestic challenges like high unemployment and the devastating BP Plc oil spill, seen as critical to avoiding big losses for his Democratic Party in November’s pivotal congressional elections.
But the furor surrounding McChrystal comes amid growing doubts in Congress and declining support among the public for the war effort in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent despite a troop buildup ordered by Obama six months ago.
Obama is mindful that success or failure in Afghanistan will be a major part of his foreign policy legacy.
The article surfaced on the eve of Obama’s monthly meeting with his Afghan war council. McChrystal typically joins by teleconference but Obama ordered him to fly in and participate directly and also meet one-on-one in the Oval Office.
The broader meeting, including many of the Obama aides denigrated by McChrystal and his staff in the article, was scheduled for 11:35 a.m. EDT.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said McChrystal made a “profound” mistake and “all options were on the table” with regard to his fate.
Obama was more cautious, saying the success of the war effort in Afghanistan would be uppermost in any decision.
McChrystal’s departure would add to uncertainty about the course of the war. The controversy could also weaken Obama, making him look soft on insubordination if he lets McChrystal stay or irresponsible if he fires the top general assigned to implement his own strategy.
Lawmakers were split over whether McChrystal should go, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai fully backed the general.
Defense officials say they have confidence that a suitable replacement could be found if he is sacked. Possible successors include Lieutenant-General David Rodriguez, who is now McChrystal’s No. 2; Lieutenant-General William Caldwell, who runs the NATO training mission for Afghan forces; and General James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command.
The article quotes a member of McChrystal’s team making jokes about Biden, who had favored a more limited counter-terrorism approach than the general wanted.
One of McChrystal’s aides called White House National Security Adviser Jim Jones a “clown” who was “stuck in 1985.”
The article also quoted an adviser to McChrystal dismissing an early meeting with Obama as a “10-minute photo op” and saying the general was “disappointed” that the president seemed disengaged.
The episode has evoked memories of military-civilian tensions when President Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his Far East command in 1951 for flouting U.S. policy and openly advocating expansion of the Korean conflict to China.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Adam Entous, Alister Bull, Will Dunham, Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell and Deborah Charles in Washington, David Fox and Jonathon Burch in Kabul, editing by Jackie Frank