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On McChrystal, little bark -- or bite -- from Obama

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, June 23, 2010; A02

Gen. Stanley McChrystal flew to Washington on Tuesday afternoon to explain, among other things, why a top adviser used the phrase "Bite Me" in reference to the vice president. But White House officials didn't wait for the general's plane to land before sinking their teeth into him.

President Obama's hand-selected commander in Afghanistan had, along with his aides, made shockingly insubordinate comments to Rolling Stone magazine: calling the national security adviser a "clown," describing Obama as intimidated and disengaged, disparaging allies and top U.S. diplomats, and converting Vice President Biden's surname to Bite Me. Obama ordered McChrystal to appear in the Situation Room on Wednesday, but in the briefing room on Tuesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs was already feasting.

First bite: "General McChrystal," Gibbs said, "has made an enormous mistake."

Second bite: "I think the magnitude and graveness of the mistake here are profound."

Third bite: "The purpose for calling him here is to see what in the world he was thinking."

Gibbs kept on chewing out the commander. "I think anybody that reads that article understands . . . what an enormous mistake this was," he said. Parents of soldiers "need to know that the structure where they're sending their children is one that is capable and mature enough in prosecuting a war."

ABC News's Jake Tapper stopped him. "Did I hear you correctly? So you're questioning whether General McChrystal is capable and mature enough for this job he has?"

"You had my quote right," Gibbs said.

Only two words were missing from this disembowelment of the commander: You're fired. Gibbs hinted that Obama would deliver that message to McChrystal in person on Wednesday. If he doesn't, it's hard to see how he can maintain his credibility as a leader.

Even before the quotes in the Rolling Stone article (the accuracy of which McChrystal hasn't challenged), the commander in chief had surprised foes and worried friends by how far he allowed himself to be pushed. That accounts for an Washington Post-ABC News poll earlier this month finding that 57 percent of respondents viewed Obama as a strong leader and 43 percent did not; 14 months ago, it was 77 percent to 22 percent.

On the Hill, Democrats have ignored White House pleas for party unity, and intraparty disputes are preventing action on the budget, war spending, job creation, immigration reform and energy legislation. In the media, stalwart allies such as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow panned Obama's speech on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Obama's own secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, told the world about his unannounced plan to file suit over Arizona's new immigration law.

Republicans, in turn, have reached new levels of presidential disrespect. After Obama pushed BP to set aside money for those hurt by the oil spill, the opposition apologized -- to BP. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, took the extraordinary step of attacking Obama at a political rally over comments he says (and the White House denies) the president made in a private meeting.

Through it all, Obama has given precious little pushback, taking the disrespect like a President Dangerfield. When the public saw no anger from him over the oil spill, Gibbs assured Americans that he had, in fact, seen the president clench his jaw. Obama then insisted that he was looking for "whose ass to kick" on the Gulf Coast -- but no bottoms were bruised.

Now Gen. Bite Me may have gone too far even for President Dangerfield to tolerate. The insults from McChrystal and his men -- packaged with vulgarities, a middle finger and drunken singing in a Paris bar -- challenge not just Obama but the sacred concept of civilian control of the military. That's probably why figures such as Republicans Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) gave Obama a free pass on Tuesday to fire the general.

The president, nibbling around the edges, said nothing about McChrystal until remarking in the evening that the general had shown "poor judgment." Gibbs, in the briefing room, was similarly slow to bare his teeth when asked for Obama's reaction. "Well, suffice to say, our combatant commander does not usually participate in these meetings from Washington," he said of Wednesday's session in the Situation Room.

But it didn't suffice to say that, and reporters tried to provoke Gibbs, sniffling and sipping tea from a paper cup, to unload on McChrystal: "How can the president keep someone in his job who offers that level of insubordination? . . . Does the president at all feel betrayed?"

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman, pointing out that McChrystal had already been in trouble (for disagreeing publicly with Biden), asked: "How many times can this man be taken to the woodshed?"

Gibbs followed the familiar route of expressing the president's anger. "I gave him the article last night, and he was angry," he announced.

"How so?" asked CBS's Chip Reid.

"Angry. You would know it if you saw it," Gibbs said.

Reporters pressed: "Did he pound the table? Did he curse? Can you elaborate?"

"No," Gibbs said. "I'm not going to elaborate."

Good answer. It's time for Obama and his aides to stop talking about his anger, and start acting on it.

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