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Obama shows McChrystal who's in command

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President Obama accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation after controversial remarks in Rolling Stone magazine, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus. Obama called the decision "a change in personnel...not a change in policy" in Afghanistan.

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By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

It was 95 degrees in the Rose Garden. Reporters dripped with sweat. Vice President Biden's brow glistened. Defense Secretary Robert Gates's face was pink and Gen. David Petraeus's was red.

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But the sight before them was rare enough to be worth the suffering: The commander in chief was being commanding.

Without benefit of his favorite transitional object -- the teleprompter malfunctioned at the start of his remarks -- Obama stood, preternaturally cool and dry, on the steps leading to the Oval Office and delivered some of the most forceful words of his presidency.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal's conduct, he said, "does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."

Obama had decided, with "regret but also with certainty," that his top commander in Afghanistan had to be sacked for the insubordination that he and his staff had displayed in a Rolling Stone article. "I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division," Obama said.

For those craving strong presidential leadership, it was reassuring to hear unequivocal words such as "certainty" and "won't tolerate" on Obama's lips -- and even more reassuring that he was acting on those sentiments. The president, too often passive in the face of challenges to his authority, correctly recognized that McChrystal's insults to him and his advisers threatened to weaken his administration. For 36 hours, he flirted with a Carter-esque response -- expressing anger in words but not deeds -- before finally taking decisive action.

McChrystal, on the morning of his firing, made it apparent that he still didn't understand the gravity of his offense. Arriving at the Pentagon, he was asked by NBC News whether he had offered his resignation. "Come on, you know better than that. No!" he replied.

McChrystal and his men had labeled the president timid and disengaged, called the national security adviser a clown, referred to the vice president as "Bite Me" and otherwise trashed top diplomats and allies -- and it wasn't the first time the general had publicly defied the White House. That it wouldn't occur to him to at least offer his resignation was one more reason he had to go.

Obama made quick work of the general. McChrystal arrived at the White House after 9:30 a.m. and was gone by 10:30; White House aides said he spent less than half an hour in the Oval Office. He emerged from the West Wing with his top teeth over his bottom lip -- a grin? a grimace? -- and was whisked away in a waiting minivan, not to return.

In the Situation Room under the White House, Obama and his national security team mapped out their Afghanistan policy under Petraeus, the hero of the Iraq surge who, in agreeing to lead the Afghan campaign, was essentially taking a demotion from his top job at the U.S. Central Command.

Upstairs in the briefing room, reporters awaiting the announcement watched the World Cup on TV. A huge cheer erupted when the United States scored a late goal to beat Algeria and advance to the second round. Deputy press secretary Bill Burton stuck his head into the room to associate himself with the celebration. "We support that," he announced.

Finally, the real announcement was ready, and reporters were led into the broiling Rose Garden. The teleprompters on the lawn were playing a test message: "Abraham Lincoln. Gettysburg, Pa., November 19, 1863. Four score and seven years ago . . ." It was an apt warm-up for another president from Illinois who was about to fire his own Gen. McClellan.

With Vice President Bite Me over his shoulder, Obama said he was not motivated by "any sense of personal insult" -- although that alone would have justified the decision. He also said, more than once, that "this is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy."

Obama's best moments as president -- pushing health-care legislation across the finish line and defying his own party to escalate the fight in Afghanistan -- have come when he resisted his cautious instincts and took bold action. He had another such moment in the Rose Garden on Wednesday.

He vowed anew to "do whatever is necessary to succeed in Afghanistan." He encouraged the skeptics, many from his own political base, "to remember what this is all about: Our nation is at war." As important, he let his critics know that there are limits to how far he can be pushed.

"Our democracy depends upon institutions that are stronger than individuals," he said. "That includes strict adherence to the military chain of command and respect for civilian control over that chain of command."

Those could have been dismissed as "just words," to use the phrase Hillary Clinton once applied to Obama. But this time, Obama gave the words meaning.


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