WASHINGTON -- In what may prove to be a defining moment of his presidency, Barack Obama on Wednesday accepted the resignation of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of the war in Afghanistan, saying it was necessary to preserve the principle of military deference to civilian leadership.
The president said that McChrystal's and his staff's derogatory comments to Rolling Stone magazine about U.S. civilian leadership forced the move, but he stressed that the personnel shift doesn't signal any change in American war policy.
The president nominated Army Gen. David Petraeus, 57, who led the Iraq War in 2007 and 2008, to move to Kabul and take over McChrystal's responsibilities. Petraeus currently heads the Pentagon's Central
Command, which oversees U.S. military interests throughout the Middle East and central Asia, including Afghanistan.
"It is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military and for our country," Obama said in a nine- minute statement from the White House Rose Garden.
On a pivotal day for his presidency, Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, British Prime Minister David Cameron and a bipartisan group of American lawmakers to solidify support for his moves. Vice President Joe Biden and national security adviser James Jones also reached out, reassuring NATO allies. Obama is asking the Senate to confirm Petraeus before its July Fourth recess, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., promised speedy action starting next week.
The announcement came as June became the deadliest month for the U.S.-dominated international coalition in Afghanistan. NATO announced eight more international troop deaths Wednesday for a total of 76 this month, one more than in the deadliest month previously, in July 2009. Forty-six of those killed this month were Americans. The U.S. has 90,800 troops in Afghanistan.
Both publicly and behind closed doors, the president sought to use McChrystal's ouster to unify support behind his Afghan counterinsurgency campaign and his July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down U.S. troops. He told his national security team that it's "not an option but an obligation" to quit infighting and second-guessing the war plan, for the sake of the troops and the mission.
Obama emphasized that his decision to dump McChrystal wasn't payback for "any sense of personal insult." He said he had "great admiration" for McChrystal, who always had executed his orders faithfully. "But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president."
In the Rolling Stone article, McChrystal, 55, and anonymous aides were quoted ridiculing members of the president's war council, including Biden, Jones and Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
That conduct didn't meet the standard required of a military officer, Obama said, and it threatened to undermine the bedrock constitutional principle of military deference to civilian command. It also threatened the unity that wartime demands, the president said.
"I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division," Obama said. "All of us have personal interests. All of us have opinions. Our politics often fuels conflict, but we have to renew our sense of common purpose and meet our responsibilities to one another, and to our troops who are in harm's way, and to our country."
It wasn't immediately clear who would fill Petraeus' post at Central Command.
Petraeus has supported the counterinsurgency strategy and "surge" of 30,000 troops that McChrystal recommended and the president adopted last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.