General’s downfall was rapid-fire
Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s team knew it had a problem on its hands June 17, when fact checkers for Rolling Stone magazine sent in questions for an upcoming cover story.
Did the Afghanistan commander’s inner circle really refer to itself as “Team America”? read one question that landed on the desk of McChrystal’s press aide, Duncan Boothby.
It was hardly the most explosive revelation in the piece, but it served as an early warning that McChrystal’s decision to allow generous access might have backfired.
By Monday, an advance copy of the article was in the hands of a press aide for President Obama, setting in motion a chain of events that culminated less than 48 hours later with McChrystal’s ouster and Obama seeking to reassert control over a military leadership that appeared disdainful of civilian authorities.
The article caught the White House wholly unprepared. “There was no forewarning,” a senior administration official said in an interview. “It was like, ‘Holy ----!’ ”
Vice President Joe Biden was flying home from Chicago aboard Air Force Two on Monday when McChrystal called to apologize. But Biden didn’t know what the general was talking about -- he had no inkling that the article existed.
Soon enough he would learn the reason for the call. Aides scrambled to get him a copy of the story, in which one McChrystal aide derisively referred to Biden as “Bite Me.”
As an executive, Obama has little tolerance for what he calls “unforced errors” -- mistakes that are entirely preventable. In that regard, McChrystal’s team had committed an unforced error on a major scale and at the most inauspicious time.
The White House is struggling with an unending oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and an unemployment rate hovering near 10%. Now Obama was confronted by a challenge to a cherished constitutional principle: civilian control of the military.
In a series of interviews Wednesday, several senior administration officials who declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic recounted the rapid-fire events stemming from a profile in a rock and politics magazine that led to the ouster of America’s top battlefield general.
Obama first saw the article Monday. White House press aide Tommy Vietor had quickly printed out copies and walked them around the West Wing.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs headed to the bottom level of the White House residence, where about 8 p.m. he handed a copy to the president. Obama read a chunk of it, growing visibly more angry as he moved down the page.
Obama isn’t a screamer. How does he show anger? “You would know it if you saw it,” Gibbs would say later.
Obama summoned top aides to the Oval Office that night. In the room were senior advisor David Axelrod, National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and national security advisor James L. Jones would arrive later that night for a second round of meetings.
“Is anybody disputing this article?” Gibbs asked the others, according to a senior staffer who was present. No one had heard that.
The question then turned to McChrystal’s future: Would the general have to go?
“That possibility came up,” said the staffer said of McChrystal’s resignation. “Many of us saw the very challenge the president outlined: how you maintain a chain of command, given this.”
Before the night was through, the president issued a single order: Call McChrystal to the White House. Right away.
By Tuesday morning, the story had consumed official Washington. At the Pentagon, military leaders privately ran through names of people who might succeed McChrystal.
Biden came to the White House for lunch to discuss the matter with the president and review possible candidates. Shortly after 3 p.m., Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was in the Oval Office.
The same name surfaced at every meeting, according to sources familiar with the discussions: Gen. David H. Petraeus. And Petraeus already was in town for a group meeting with the president to discuss the status of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But Obama didn’t talk to him that day. He first wanted to meet privately with McChrystal. At the White House’s instruction, Gates ordered McChrystal to fly to Washington. The general boarded a plane that left Afghanistan at 1 p.m. Eastern time.
There is some dispute about whether McChrystal’s fate had been decided when he showed up at the Oval Office at 9:51 a.m. Wednesday morning for a face-to-face meeting with Obama.
The White House said his departure wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Even as late as Wednesday morning, there was a “path available” to reconciliation, one senior staffer believed.
But Defense officials said McChrystal went into the meeting with Obama believing he was out -- that he was certain to be relieved of command and that reconciliation wasn’t possible.
Less than half an hour after the Oval Office doors closed, the meeting was over. A solemn McChrystal left the White House compound -- not from the ceremonial West Wing portico where a Marine guard stands in dress uniform, but rather from a below-ground exit.
He had offered his resignation, and Obama had accepted it.
As McChrystal sped away in his van, Obama summoned Biden and other top advisors to discuss what one of them called “the next steps for command” in Afghanistan.
After that meeting, the president met with Petraeus for about 40 minutes. That’s when Obama offered Petraeus command of the Afghanistan war.
In what one senior advisor called a “stern and forceful tone,” Obama privately explained to his advisors why he accepted McChrystal’s resignation.
“We have to remember why we’re doing this,” Obama said, according to the advisor. This was not about “personalities and reputation,” he said, and he didn’t want to see any more of the “pettiness” displayed in the Rolling Stone article.
With that, Obama led a mix of military and civilian leaders outside into the stifling heat of the Rose Garden to make the announcement.
“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general,” the president said. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”
In the hours that followed, the president and his staff placed calls to lawmakers and allies around the world.
Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom administration officials say expressed support for the president’s decision. He called leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill, in part to ask for speedy confirmation of Petraeus.
Meantime, national security advisor Jones worked his way down the list of NATO allies, trying to ease any misgivings and reassure them that U.S. officials are unified in their shared mission.
“If you read the beginning of the article,” said one senior staffer, “you are left with great concern about how our allies will read this.”
Two days after the article first landed in Vietor’s inbox, with the innocuous sounding description, “Rolling Stone article,” one general had been relieved of command, another installed as his replacement, and the idea that the military answers to civilian leadership had been reaffirmed.