By accepting the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal and replacing him with General David Petraeus, Barack Obama has taken one of the most decisive–and dramatic acts–of his young presidency. But while the fall of Obama’s top man in Afghanistan and the ascension of a military icon sometimes seen as rival to the President makes for a riveting political story, when it comes to the conduct of the war, there is less here than meets the eye.
But first the storyline. Obama made clear today that, although Stanley McChrystal was faithfully executing the White House’s war plan, the conduct revealed by Rolling Stone magazine amounted to insubordination that tests the sacred principle of the American military-civilian divide. The portrait captured by RS reporter Michael Hastings, Obama said, “does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general” and “undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of a democratic system.” Obama said that he welcomes disagreement within his foreign policy team but that he “won’t tolerate division.”
In taking that stand, and quickly installing Petraeus, Obama should quiet critics who have been mocking him for an allegedly timid approach to the BP oil spill in recent weeks. The change of generals was the firm action of a hands-on executive. And a self-confident one, too, given that Petraeus is widely viewed as retaining sympathies to the Bush administration in which he earned national prominence for leading the Iraq surge. Through Petraeus has spent much of the past year (persuasively) denying that he has presidential ambitions, some senior White House officials are said never to have fully trusted him. But Obama obviously doesn’t feel too threatened by Petraues to hand him such an essential assignment. More saliently, Obama also clearly believes that appointing Petraeus–who as head of Central Command has been closely involved in shaping Afghanistan policy, and pays regular visits to Pakistani leaders–will result in minimum disruption to the war effort.
Can Petraeus turn the tide in Afghanistan? He’s certainly a brilliant military thinker, and helped turn the Iraq disaster into a fragile peace that nevertheless has allowed a gradual American exit from that country to proceed. But it would be a mistake to assume that Petraeus is a miracle worker who can repeat the apparent success of the surge. Afghanistan is a very different country, and much of the American success in Iraq was the product of good luck–the revolt of of Sunni tribesman against al Qaeda, for instance–combined with smart strategy and more manpower.
As for the strategy in Afghanistan, it remains decidedly unchanged. And that is where the drama of the past 36 hours ultimately may have little impact on America’s national security. “This is a change in personnel, but it is not a change in policy,” Obama said from the Rose Garden this afternoon, even as vice president Joe Biden–an avowed skeptic of the counterinsurgency strategy now underway–stood at his side. That strategy has been alarmingly slow to deliver results, however, as recently evidenced by a Taliban comeback in the recently-cleared Marja district and a delayed push into Kandahar city. It’s true that the full complement of troops Obama ordered to the country last year hasn’t even arrived yet. But Obama’s target date of July 2011 to begin draw downs from the country is approaching fast, and Afghan forces are still nowhere near ready for a handoff of security duties.
The vital question facing Obama is how he handles that draw down pledge. If the war effort is still faltering (with a presidential election closing in) will he essentially give up the fight? Double down and send more troops? Split the baby and keep slogging? Those are the fundamental questions that lie beneath today’s stunning personal drama. And regardless of who’s in command in Afghanistan, Obama will have to face them soon.