President Obama yesterday accepted the resignation of his headstrong four-star commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. Despite being handpicked by the President himself just over a year ago, as a sign of the administration’s commitment to win in Afghanistan by putting in place a well-respected leader with counter-insurgency experience, McChrystal is out, a victim of intemperate comments to a reporter who knew a good story when he heard one. The President, no doubt aware of the optics of sacking his own chosen general, has replaced him with General David Petraeus, the Commander in Chief of the Central Command. Petraeus, one of the most respected military men in the world, is an excellent choice that even the Republicans can support.
What the replacement of McChrystal with Petraeus will mean for the war in Afghanistan remains unclear, but it will certainly be significant. Despite the President’s statement that the change in command reflects “a change of personnel, not policy” it is unlikely that things will be so easy for the beleaguered chief executive. General McChrystal carried the Administration’s hopes for a quick turnaround and a clean exit on his back. Now that he has fallen short, and a man who does not favor a 2011 withdrawal has taken his place, Americans may soon be treated to yet another battle of wills between the politicians and the generals.
In all such contests, the politicians must of course prevail. Civilian leadership is an essential feature of Western democracies: whatever the individual merits of any particular politician or government, they must hold unquestioned authority over the armed forces. But real life can often be grittier. The appointment of General Petraeus, while militarily sound, also has its political components. McChrystal was President Obama’s personal choice. Now that the general has been sacked after this latest public-relations disaster (not his first), the President needed to deal quickly with the fallout of McChrystal’s words while appointing someone with matching military credentials to maintain public confidence, both in the war effort and in his own presidency. Mission accomplished. But what next?
McChrystal was the Special Forces expert. Petraeus is a big-thinking strategist, a man who’s invested years of his life building Iraq into a politically stable nation where its citizens can walk the streets safely. In this he has been largely successful, despite the inevitable political difficulties and occasional, painful losses of civilian life. To put his stamp on the war in Afghanistan, he will have to reverse the Administration’s hope for a quick counter-insurgency victory followed by a semi-triumphant withdrawal. Instead, he is likely to favor of outright nation-building, complete with a troop surge that mirrors the enormous deployment of troops he oversaw in Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.
It worked then and there. With Obama’s first choice for commander now out of work, will the President be able to resist a suggestion by General Petraeus to try again? Constitutionally, Obama has the authority to refuse. But does he have the political capital to quit on Petraeus?
Setting aside these political and strategic issues, there are other, more personal considerations. President Obama, as much as anything else, had to sack McChrystal because of risk that the general’s comments concerning other Administration officials might have eroded confidence and trust amongst people who absolutely must work closely together. The President was likely right to dismiss McChrystal for that reason alone.
But it certainly is ironic, given the rather mute reaction of then-senator Barack Obama to a disgusting attack by the “progressive” organization MoveOn.org against Petraeus. The infamous ad, released in September 2007 after General Petraeus reported the troop surge was working but might need to be sustained for some time, was a cheap pun based on the pronunciation of the General’s name. It asked if it would be better termed “Betray us.” (A copy of the ad, along with some interesting commentary concerning its recent removal from the Moveon.org website, can be found here.) Many politicians, including some Democrats, responded swiftly, condemning Moveon.org for the personal attack against the honor and character of a loyal soldier. Notably silent was senator Obama, who released a statement responding to Petraeus’ testimony, but not the ad.
As Senator, Obama also led the Democratic attacks against the “surge” strategy that Petraeus supported and that, alongside the general’s counterinsurgency tactics, turned the tide in what appeared to be a doomed war effort in Iraq. At a time when the strategy was just beginning to show signs of promise, Obama dismissed it as “not working.” As the surge succeeded, the criticism vanished from Obama’s campaign website, but it would be a stretch to say that the president recognized Petraeus’s military acumen all along. Now, the former senator is the President, and with McChrystal gone, Petraeus has once more ridden to the rescue, this time to implement a strategy that Obama once opposed.
General McChrystal’s departure is a sad day for the United States. A brave and honorable soldier, he has been undone by his soldierly lack of politesse. But now is the time to look forward. General Petraeus, already a man with heavy responsibilities, must shoulder even greater burdens as the war in Afghanistan continues to drag on. And President Obama, a man who has sacked two generals in barely a year, must now place his faith – and perhaps his political future – in the hands of a man he was once unwilling to defend.
Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at [email protected].