LATEST UPDATE: OBAMA HAS SAID HE WILL MAKE REMARKS ABOUT THE GENERAL AT A PRESS CONFERENCE IN THE ROSE GARDEN AT 1:30 PM ET. MORE SOON.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama met his top Afghanistan commander on Wednesday to decide whether to fire him over inflammatory comments that angered the White House and threatened to undermine the war effort.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, summoned to explain remarks he and his aides made in a magazine article that disparaged Obama and other senior civilian leaders, held a private, 30-minute session with the president in the Oval Office before getting into a car and leaving the White House.
There was no word on whether Obama had determined McChrystal’s fate.
The situation poses a dilemma for Obama. If McChrystal keeps his job, the president could be seen as tolerating insubordination from the military. If he fires him, it would mean shaking up the chain of command at a perilous moment in the unpopular 9-year-old war.
McChrystal first met Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon before entering the White House through a side door for his one-on-one meeting with Obama. He left before Obama’s Afghanistan war council, which he had been due to attend, convened in late morning. It was not known whether he had returned to take part in the conference.
Obama, described by aides as furious about the Rolling Stone magazine article, issued a stern rebuke to McChrystal on Tuesday, saying he wanted to 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.
Amid harsh criticism over McChrystal’s contemptuous remarks, U.S. officials had said they expected the general, 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” — //www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/17390/119236 — 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” and saying the president appeared intimidated at his first meeting with McChrystal.
GROWING DOUBTS ON WAR EFFORT
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 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.
The article surfaced on the eve of Obama’s monthly meeting with his Afghanistan advisers. McChrystal typically joins by teleconference but Obama called him on the carpet, ordering him to fly in and participate directly.
The broader meeting, which included many of the Obama aides denigrated by McChrystal and his staff in the article, went ahead on Wednesday.
The day before, 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.
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 counterterrorism 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 and Jeff Mason; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Doina Chiacu)