Short, Tense Deliberation, Then a General Is Gonehttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/
WASHINGTON — By the time he woke up Wednesday morning, President Obama had made up his mind.
During the 36 frenetic hours since he had been handed an article from the coming issue of Rolling Stone ominously headlined “The Runaway General,” the president weighed the consequences of cashiering Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, whose contemptuous comments about senior officials had ignited a firestorm.
Mr. Obama, aides say, consulted with advisers — some, like Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who warned of the dangers of replacing General McChrystal, others, like his political advisers, who thought he had to go. He reached out for advice to a soldier-statesman, Colin L. Powell. He identified a possible successor to lead the war in Afghanistan.
And then, finally, the president ended General McChrystal’s command in a meeting that lasted only 20 minutes. According to one aide, the general apologized, offered his resignation and did not lobby for his job.
After a seesaw debate among White House officials, “there was a basic meeting of the minds,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff and a major player in the deliberations. “This was not good for the mission, the military and morale,” Mr. Emanuel said.
Mr. Obama has forced out officials before, including the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair; the White House counsel, Gregory Craig; even General McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan.
But this is the highest profile sacking of his presidency. The time between Mr. Obama’s first reading of the Rolling Stone article and his decision to accept General McChrystal’s resignation offers an insight into the president’s decision-making process under intense stress: He appears deliberative and open to debate, but in the end, is coldly decisive.
In a subsequent meeting with his Afghan war council, Mr. Obama delivered a tongue-lashing, instructing his advisers to stop bickering among themselves.
“The president said he didn’t want to see pettiness; that this was not about personalities or reputations — it’s about our men and women in uniform,” said a senior administration official, who like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity in offering an account of the last two days.
The drama began on Monday afternoon, when Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who was flying home from Illinois to Andrews Air Force Base, took an unsettling call from General McChrystal.
The phone connection was scratchy, and the conversation lasted barely two minutes. General McChrystal told the vice president there was an article coming out that he would not like. Baffled, Mr. Biden asked his staff to investigate, and when he landed, aides handed him the article.
After digesting it back at his residence in Washington, Mr. Biden put in a call to Mr. Obama at 7:30 that evening. Hours earlier, the White House had itself gotten wind of the article, and a young press aide named Tommy Vietor distributed copies to all the top officials in Mr. Obama’s national security circle.
The press secretary, Robert Gibbs, walked a copy of it to the president in the private quarters. After scanning the first few paragraphs — a sarcastic, profanity-laced description of General McChrystal’s disgust at having to dine with a French minister to brief him about the war — Mr. Obama had read enough, a senior administration official said. He ordered his political and national security aides to convene immediately in the Oval Office.
It was already clear then, this official said, that General McChrystal might not survive. Mr. Obama was leaning toward dismissing him, another administration official said, though he said the president was willing to wait until the general explained his actions, and those of his aides.
At the Oval Office meeting on Monday, Mr. Obama asked that General McChrystal be summoned home from Kabul. Before leaving Afghanistan, the general held an already scheduled meeting with Susan E. Rice, the United Nations ambassador, who was visiting with other United Nations diplomats.
In a one-on-one meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Gates, who had pushed to make General McChrystal the commander in Afghanistan, pleaded with Mr. Obama to hear him out, an official said. Mr. Gates warned that removing the commander would be hugely disruptive. He worried in particular about “continuity, momentum, and relations with allies,” said a senior official, who was involved in the meetings.
Still, even as Mr. Gates advocated for General McChrystal, the Pentagon began drawing up a list of potential replacements. Mr. Obama, this official said, was immediately drawn to the idea of turning to Gen. David H. Petraeus — an architect of the counterinsurgency strategy, a politically skilled commander and a replacement who would address Mr. Gates’s concerns.
As it happened, General Petraeus was close at hand. That day, he had traveled to a secret site in Northern Virginia to convene a meeting of the Counterterrorism Executive Council, a group of military and intelligence officials who gather regularly to discuss operations.
General Petraeus was not offered the job until he walked into the White House on Wednesday, soon after the president’s meeting with General McChrystal, a senior aide said.
On Tuesday, while General McChrystal was making the 14-hour flight to Washington, the White House was involved in a whirl of meetings about his fate. Along with Mr. Gates, aides say, four other senior officials were influential: Vice President Biden; the national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Adm. Mike Mullen; and Mr. Emanuel.
Mr. Emanuel’s opinion and that of other advisers swung back and forth, a senior official said. Mr. Obama seemed inclined toward dismissing the general, but heard out the debate. By Tuesday night, officials said, they ended up hoping that the general would simply resign.
Meanwhile, General McChrystal was busy placing calls to apologize to people who were belittled in the article. One of those he called was Senator John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“He was very respectful and apologetic, and I think, obviously understood he’d made a mistake and he wasn’t making any excuses,” Mr. Kerry said in an interview, noting that General McChrystal made no case for keeping his job. “He was being pretty direct and upfront.”
The general had some high-profile defenders, including President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. But in the end, Mr. Obama decided that he had to go.
After meeting with General McChrystal, he held a 40-minute meeting with General Petraeus and a broader session with his war council and then stepped into the Rose Garden to explain his decision to the American public.“He likes Stan and thinks Stan is a good man, a good general and a good soldier,” Mr. Emanuel said. “But as he said in his statement, this is bigger than any one person.”