I do believe President Obama should have accepted General McChrystal’s resignation, and I agree with the near universal assessment on the right that there can be no better replacement than General David Petraeus. However, that does not mean I am more confident about the fate of Afghanistan today than I was yesterday. The reason is simple: President Obama.
Amidst the praise for General Petraeus – which he certainly earned from his performance in Iraq – we have almost entirely forgotten the importance of the civilian who appointed him, as if having Petraeus as the military commander makes the president a better Commander-in-Chief. It doesn’t.
Lest we forget, when Petraeus was commander in the Iraq theatre, then-President Bush had his back every step of the way, and he set the tone for everyone else in his Administration: the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, other civilian appointees, etc. Even Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who couldn’t have agreed with the general every second of every day, kept his contentions (and attempts to resolve them) private.
Contrast that with Obama’s treatment of McChrystal, who was not only appointed by Obama but was on the president’s side politically (no one knows to this day what Petraeus’ political affiliations are): civilians from Vice President Biden on down could and did brief against the general’s strategy – even though it was supposed to be the president’s, too.
Nearly everyone assumes Obama et al will avoid that sort of thing with Petraeus.
I have my doubts.
The only thing we knew about President Bush’s view on the WBK War was that he wanted it won. The only thing we knew about President Obama’s view on the WBK War is that he wants it over. That’s not the same thing, as I fear Petraeus is soon to discover.
Consider the President’s own words (SF Headlines Examiner):
So make no mistake: We have a clear goal. We are going to break the Taliban’s momentum. We are going to build Afghan capacity. We are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same.
Notice what’s missing? Any references to defeating the Taliban? Any references to defeating al Qaeda? Any reference to victory? No to all three.
In short, the president has picked the right general, but for the wrong objectives. He (the president) still wants merely to end the war, not to win it. That’s a flaw no general can fix, not even David Petraeus.