WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama rebuked his Afghanistan war commander for poor judgment Tuesday and considered whether to fire him in the most extraordinary airing of military-civilian tensions since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command a half-century ago.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is prepared to submit his resignation at a meeting with Obama today at the White House, the Associated Press, citing two unnamed military officials, reported Tuesday night.
Obama summoned McChrystal, 55, to explain disparaging comments about his commander in chief and Obama's top aides in a Rolling Stone magazine article. The meeting was a last-ditch moment for the general once considered the war's brightest hope.
"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared showed . . . poor judgment," the president said at the close of a Cabinet meeting. "But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."
There was a widespread recognition among military and political officials that McChrystal had crossed an almost sacred line in criticizing his civilian chain of command.
"I say this as someone who admired and respects Stan McChrystal enormously. The country doesn't know how much good he's done. But this is a firing offense," Eliot A. Cohen, who served as a counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the latter days of the Bush administration, told the Washington Post.
But relieving McChrystal of his command on the eve of a major offensive in Kandahar, which White House and Pentagon officials have said is the most critical of the war, would be a major blow to the war effort, military experts said. The president has set a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, creating massive pressure on the military and McChrystal to make progress in stabilizing Afghanistan this summer and fall when troop levels are at their peak.
"My advice is to call him back to Washington, publicly chastise him and then make it clear that there is something greater at stake here," Nathaniel Fick, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, said to the Post. "It takes time for anyone to get up to speed, and right now time is our most precious commodity in Afghanistan."
No senior Defense official has stepped forward to defend McChrystal or publicly offer support. The White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, left no doubt that McChrystal's comments could cost him his job, and suggested that the general might not be "capable and mature enough" to lead the war effort.
Duncan Boothby, McChrystal's civilian communications adviser who has been on McChrystal's staff for roughly a year, resigned Tuesday.
Boothby was heavily involved in arranging access for freelance journalist Michael Hastings to McChrystal and his staff this year so Hastings could write the profile, titled "The Runaway General."
In the article, McChrystal made fun of Biden and criticized Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, as his advisers ridiculed the vice president, insulted presidential envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and called White House national security adviser James Jones a "clown."
Jeremy Peters described in his Media Decoder blog at nytimes.com how Hastings, gained access to McChrystal:
Hastings met the general and his staff in Paris when the Icelandic volcano eruption forced European airspace to close. Hastings waited in Paris with the general and his staff as they tried to get to Berlin by bus. Then Hastings stayed at Berlin's Ritz-Carlton hotel with McChrystal for nearly a week while they waited for the ash to clear so they could fly to Afghanistan.
"We assigned this story before we knew we had any access," Eric Bates, Rolling Stone's executive editor, told Peters. "We just wanted to profile McChrystal as the commander of the war in Afghanistan."
Hastings spent about a month on and off with the general and his staff while they were in Afghanistan. Very few of Hastings interactions with the general were off the record, Bates said. Most of the comments seem to have been uttered during unguarded moments, in places like bars and restaurants where the general and his aides gathered to unwind.
"I think there's an enormous frustration there where they feel like people don't get it. And that seeps through into a lot of those quotes. They feel that the people who are supposed to be working with them aren't working with them or don't understand what the strategy is," Bates told Peters.
The published comments clearly put the White House in a bind, coming months after Obama upbraided McChrystal for his earlier criticism of Biden. For Obama, firing McChrystal would be the surest way to address signs of insubordination from the military.
But removing McChrystal also would trigger a search for a general to take charge of the war and could jeopardize the administration's timetable for showing progress and reducing troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called McChrystal to the Pentagon to explain his comments. Gates offered no support and said McChrystal had made "a significant mistake."
One of the few expressions of support came from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who an aide said "expressed a strong wish" for McChrystal to remain in his post.
McChrystal offered a public apology Tuesday. He also met with Karzai, Holbrooke and Eikenberry and privately apologized.
In a White House press briefing, Gibbs, normally circumspect on personnel matters, used forceful language to rebuff McChrystal. He said when he showed Obama the article on Monday night, the president was "angry."
How angry? "You would know it if you saw it," Gibbs said.
Information from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times and staff research was used in this report.