When President Obama first read the new Rolling Stone article, he did not bother to play it cool. In it, Obama found that the erstwhile bible of rock-'n'-roll attitude had chronicled his Afghanistan commander, General Stanley McChrystal, openly mocking the Administration in conversations with aides, cavorting in a Paris pub and generally acting less like a general than like a jock. "He was angry," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs of the President's reaction to the article, which he was shown on Monday night. "You would know it if you saw it."
By Tuesday afternoon, however, as he gathered his senior staff in the Cabinet Room, it appeared that the President's mood had changed. At one end of the table sat National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who was called a "clown" by a McChrystal aide quoted in Rolling Stone. Across from Obama sat Vice President Joe Biden, who was called "Bite Me" by one of the general's advisers. There was no one present to represent the French minister whose dinner a McChrystal aide called "f___ing gay."
Rather than lash out in response, however, Obama projected a Zen-like calm. He called McChrystal's actions "poor judgment" and said he would not decide the general's fate until after the two met on Wednesday. Then he tried to make the burgeoning scandal a teachable moment. "Whatever decision that I make with respect to General McChrystal or any other aspect of Afghan policy," Obama said, "is determined entirely on how I can make sure that we have a strategy that justifies the enormous courage and sacrifice that those men and women are making over there and that ultimately makes this country safer."
It was classic Obama: when presented with a hard choice fire or retain a general who had stepped out of line he tried to rise above the debate. Obama insisted that his focus needed to be less on the things McChrystal said (for which he had already apologized) than on shaping a war policy that is not progressing as well as the White House hoped it would. Defense Secretary Robert Gates echoed Obama's approach on Tuesday, noting McChrystal's "poor judgment" before pivoting quickly to the importance of the war effort. "Our troops and coalition partners are making extraordinary sacrifices on behalf of our security," Gates announced, "and our singular focus must be on supporting them." The same message came from Gibbs, who insisted that the conversation should not be "about the personalities and the egos." Instead, he said, "it should be about the men and women who are there doing the hard work under some of the toughest conditions in the world."
As a political gambit, Obama's handling of the situation is not without risk. On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Republican advisers wondered at Obama's decision to handle McChrystal's faux pas from the White House. Rather than have Gates or Central Command chief David Petraeus dish out the discipline, Obama recalled McChrystal for a face-to-face meeting, a decision that would keep the issue and the shortcomings of U.S. progress in Afghanistan in the headlines.
GOP aides saw the issue as a trap for Obama: if he were to keep McChrystal on, he could be cast as a weak leader, tolerant of insubordination. If he were to dismiss McChrystal, it would be a sign of disarray in his Afghan policy. "Obviously a general and his top brass don't make statements like these without being frustrated," announced House Republican whip Eric Cantor in a statement on Tuesday, clearly seeing the imbroglio as an opportunity to seek political advantage.
As rumors about McChrystal's fate swirled around the capital, there were conflicting reports on whether the general had offered to resign. "There is no SOP on how to resign," says a senior military officer. Usually, an offer to resign would be made in writing and sent to the immediate commander. In McChrystal's case, that would be Petraeus and, given the fact that he also commands NATO forces, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Command (a job once held by Jones). But because Obama has summoned McChrystal to the White House, McChrystal is likely to refrain from offering his resignation formally until he meets with Obama. "He has not," the officer says, "officially tendered his resignation yet to anyone."
Unfortunately for Obama, the Rolling Stone story coincides with growing alarm over the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. The planned U.S.-led operation to secure Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual capital, has been postponed, partly because of a lack of support among local Afghans for a military escalation there. And that delay and the difficulties it highlights have raised a question mark over Obama's vow to begin the drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next summer. Firing McChrystal would not improve matters, since the general, handpicked by Obama to run the war, has personally led much of the outreach to Afghans on which the strategy depends. "It's in the White House's interest to have a wounded McChrystal rather than a hero and a martyr," says a retired Admiral, speaking on background. "So I think he'll survive." Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday released statements of support for McChrystal.
Other senior military veterans took the opposite view. "I don't know how you serve an Administration and be loyal to them, which you have to be, when you're speaking out like this," said a former general, who also asked for anonymity.
Should McChrystal be ousted or resign, the leading candidate to replace him might be Army Lieut. General David Rodriguez a former top aide to Gates and McChrystal's deputy in Afghanistan. Another contender would be Army Lieut. General William Caldwell, who has been training Afghan security forces. A third is Army General Martin Dempsey, now running the Army's Training and Doctrine Command following tours in Iraq. And a dark-horse candidate would be Marine General James Mattis, currently running the U.S. Joint Forces Command, who is slated to retire this fall.
Faced with a lose-lose decision, Obama's effort to focus on the war effort rather than on the Rolling Stone revelations held a certain logic. But it leaves the White House facing the difficult task of explaining the unsatisfactory progress in Afghanistan. The most damning statements in the article are those dealing with the actual progress of the war. "If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal told the magazine at one point. Another aide was even more blunt. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," Major General Bill Mayville, McChrystal's chief of operations, told the magazine. "This is going to end in an argument." Long after the scandal over the locker-room humor of McChrystal's crew has faded, these are the quotations for which both Obama and McChrystal will have to answer. And they may struggle to offer a reassuring response.
With reporting by Mark Thompson, Jay Newton-Small and Elizabeth Dias