With the ramped-up war in Afghanistan at a precarious moment, President Barack Obama prepared to hear his top war commander explain biting published complaints about the commander in chief and his aides.
Even before their showdown, the White House's rebuke of Gen. Stanley McChrystal suggested it would be hard for him to save his job.
On a summons from Obama, McChrystal flew to Washington from Afghanistan to see his boss in person Wednesday, first in the Oval Office and then in the president's regular monthly war meeting, in which McChrystal usually participates by videoconference.
Two military officials said McChrystal was prepared to submit his resignation. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Obama was set to make an announcement on McChrystal's future soon after their face-to-face.
"I think it's clear that the article in which he and his team appeared ... showed poor judgment," Obama said Tuesday at the close of an unrelated Cabinet meeting. "But I also want to make sure that I talk to him directly before I make any final decisions."
In a Rolling Stone magazine article, McChrystal didn't criticize Obama himself but called the period last fall when the president was deciding whether to approve more troops "painful" and said Obama appeared ready to hand him an "unsellable" position.
McChrystal also said he was "betrayed" by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, the man the White House chose to be his diplomatic partner in Afghanistan. He accused Eikenberry of raising doubts about the reliability of Afghan President Hamid Karzai only to give himself cover in case the U.S. effort failed. "Now, if we fail, they can say 'I told you so,'" McChrystal told the magazine. And he was quoted mocking Vice President Joe Biden.
If not insubordination, the remarks — as well as even sharper commentary about Obama and his White House from several in McChrystal's inner circle — were at least an indirect and extraordinary challenge and one that consumed Washington on Tuesday. The capital hasn't seen a similar public contretemps between a president and a top wartime commander since Harry Truman stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his command more than a half-century ago after disagreements over Korean War strategy.
Notably, neither McChrystal nor his team questioned the accuracy of the story or the quotes in it. McChrystal issued an apology.
But military leaders rarely challenge their commanders in chief publicly. When they do, consequences tend to be more severe than a scolding.
Indeed, the presidential spokesman's prepared reaction to the article was remarkably candid and revealing, even for the normally coded language of Washington. Press secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly declined to say McChrystal's job was safe, often an indicator of an imminent firing, and went further to question whether McChrystal is "capable and mature enough" to lead the war.
"Our efforts in Afghanistan are bigger than one person," Gibbs told reporters, a formulation typically used when one person is about to leave.
A senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan told The Associated Press the general — who had not spoken with Obama on the matter before Wednesday — has been given no indication that he'll be fired but no assurance he won't be. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions between Washington and the general's office in Kabul.
Once considered the beleaguered, eight-year-old Afghanistan war's brightest hope, McChrystal was hand-picked to take over the war last year, viewed as a visionary with the guts and smarts to turn the war around.
But despite his military achievements, he has a history of making waves. This is not his first brush with Obama's anger. Last fall, the president called McChrystal on the carpet for speaking too bluntly about his desire for more troops.
This time around, as McChrystal made his way toward Washington on the long flight from Kabul, his latest eruption had his support draining away.
Wisconsin Democratic Rep. David Obey, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, called for McChrystal to resign. Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among three prominent Republican senators to criticize the general and say a decision about his future should rest with Obama. The Senate approved McChrystal for the job.
Several names circulated among Pentagon and Capitol Hill aides as potential successors, including Gen. James Mattis, Joint Forces Command chief; Lt. Gen. John Allen, the No. 2 at U.S. Central Command; Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, McChrystal's No. 2 in Afghanistan; Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the Army Training and Doctrine Command; and Adm. James Stavridis, the top NATO commander in Europe.
Military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the White House meeting, said the administration had not reached out to possible successors but might do so Wednesday.
The controversy comes as the war is at a tipping point. With a majority of Americans now saying the war is probably not worth fighting, Obama officials openly acknowledged they must make progress this year against the violent Taliban insurgency. But a crucial military push in southern Afghanistan is going more slowly that McChrystal had planned and showing fewer solid results.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Pauline Jelinek, Kimberly Dozier, Laurie Kellman, Matthew Lee and Anne Flaherty in Washington and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun