WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama had little choice. Already weakened by the seemingly insolvable Gulf oil spill and his party's dicey prospects in the coming congressional election, Obama could not afford to give his Afghanistan commander a pass for his inflammatory public words.
In essence, Gen. Stanley McChrystal fired himself. It fell to Obama to make the announcement.
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The real surprise Wednesday was that Obama persuaded four-star Gen. David Petraeus, who steered U.S. military fortunes in Iraq out of a dark place, to take over from McChrystal. Petraeus was instrumental in the naming of McChrystal 13 months ago to shoulder the burden of the lagging U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
When word first exploded in Washington on Monday about what McChrystal and aides told Rolling Stone magazine about the Obama administration's conduct of the nine-year-old war, the only course left to the president was to show prudence, conduct a pro forma White House meeting with McChrystal and then announce the general's ouster.
Speaking just outside the Oval Office after meeting McChrystal and then his Afghan war team, Obama said he still held his former commander in high regard but could not overlook what he saw as a challenge to the constitutional chain of command. He said the general's conduct "undermines the civilian control of the military."
Obama, speaking as emphatically as at any time in his presidency, then declared that the United States would not back down from the fight in Afghanistan, where the war appears increasingly in disarray.
"We need to remember what this is all about," Obama said, raising his voice. "Our nation is at war. We face a very tough fight in Afghanistan. But Americans don't flinch in the face of difficult truths or difficult tasks. We persist and we persevere."
That's a difficult sales job for a president beleaguered by the unrelenting gush of oil from the BP well, by the public's doubts about his signature health care law and by persistent unemployment near 10 percent.
Already snarled in an extraordinarily partisan climate, Obama is suffering under the impression he has been weak in handling the Gulf oil spill.
Polls now find a majority of Americans no longer think the Afghanistan war is worth fighting, a feeling mirrored by public opinion among many of America's allies in the fight to deny power to Taliban militants and wipe out their al-Qaida compatriots hiding along the border in Pakistan.
Obama's selection of Petraeus, who was already overseeing the Afghanistan and Iraq wars as chief of the U.S. Central Command, sends a strong signal of stability to allies and the armed forces that the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan will press ahead without disruption.
"This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy," Obama said.
Publicly, he declared: "I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division." He said much the same privately, telling his full war cabinet in a Situation Room meeting that the backbiting must end.
With the war at what some see as a tipping point — a planned summer offensive against the Taliban coming together haltingly and a deadline to begin drawing down forces just a year away — McChrystal's outburst against his superiors came at a horrible moment for the president already weighed down by confounding domestic issues.
The president, nevertheless, sought to cede no ground, stood fast as commander in chief, took bitter Afghan lemons and did his best to make lemonade.
Steven R. Hurst has written about international relations for 30 years.