By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Obama lucks into a decisive moment

Gen. David Petraeus

From a political and perhaps also from a substantive perspective, it strikes me that President Obama got very lucky when Gen. Stanley McChrystal self-destructed in the pages of Rolling Stone. By putting Gen. David Petraeus in charge, Obama has given himself cover no matter what happens in Afghanistan.

Petraeus is our most respected military leader. If he is able to make significant progress in transforming Afghanistan into a functioning state that does not provide a safe haven for terrorists, then that will be a signal success. And if he can’t, then we all may reasonably conclude that no one can. That’s oversimplification, but it’s also reality.

“What Petraeus brings to this war is discipline and an understanding of history. Both of these are needed right now in a moment where the U.S. effort is failing,” writes Charles Sennott, executive editor of GlobalPost.

Obama also got lucky in that he was handed an opportunity to show he understands how to administer a well-deserved public ass-kicking. “Didn’t expect Obama to put McChrystal through such an elaborate ritual humiliation,” journalist John McQuaid tweeted approvingly yesterday.

I agree. Like Josh Marshall, I feared that Obama would find some way to split the difference. Instead, the president reminded us all of what it means to have a military that answers to civilian leadership.

More: Jay Rosen trashes Politico to good effect.

2007 Department of Defense photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Steve Stein

    I am much less concerned with the theatrics and much more concerned about the situation. The fact is, McChrystal got everything he wanted 6 months ago (with more unseemly lobbying through press leaks), and his strategy has shown little success. It almost looks like he orchestrated this exit to distance himself from failure.

    There’s no indication that Patraeus will alter course. Chances of anything looking like “success” in Afghanistan are low indeed.

  2. Neil Sagan

    Absolutely true Steve Stein @ 10:17. Obama didn’t “luck into” a decisive moment. He seized the moment to be decisive; and to establish a narrative that specifically doesn’t address the lack of success of the costly strategy being employed in Afghanistan. Eleven years and counting. Trillions and counting. It’s time to reassess COIN in Afghanistan and attain our goal of security for the US without nation building Afghanistan.

  3. Bill Duncliffe

    Generals are always fighting the last war. In this case, it’s particularly dangerous as the architect of COIN is in charge of the same strategy in Afghanistan. A country, by the way, whose attitude towards governmental authority is far below that in the Iraqi situation. Respect for a governmental authority is one of the key underpinnings of COIN.

    It’s not too often that I agree with Joe Biden but I feel right now that focusing on targeted hunting and killing of Al Qaeda may be the better approach.

    Petraeus is very smart, very accomplished. Maybe he’ll abandon the COIN approach and come up with a variation. I think he needs to do so.

  4. L.K. Collins

    To an extent, Dan, I would agree that Obama gets some cover for the war’s stagnancy. I think, however, that the cover may be short-lived.

    As people turn from the drama of the remarks and the firing and begin to look at the underlying conditions, they will see the dysfunction in (or outright interference with) the application of the President’s strategy by some of the key other key players.

    The firing of McChrystal may remain viewed as a positive step, but people will start wondering why Obama hasn’t found all of the people whose asses need kicking. The problem is much broader than just the remarks of the now-ex ground commander.

    Long term, if the Afghanistan situation remains as it id today, worsens, or is only slightly improved, Obama will face the consequences in the campaign and at the ballot box in the 2012 election.

  5. Bob Gardner

    “then we all may reasonably conclude that no one can [win]”

    Lot’s of luck. We’ve been there nine years, we would have come to that conclusion years ago if reason had anything to do with it. Politically, as well as militarity, Afghanistan is a quagmire.

  6. Phil Gallagher

    My how the General’s stock has risen in the eyes of the Left. Who can forget the reference to General Betrayus (now thouroughly eradicated from their website). Or how about our current secretary of state basically calling him a lir to his face.

  7. Neil Sagan

    Phil Gallagher – that was when it was Bush’s war, now its Obama’s War. No sense in not picking the right’s hero to run it.

  8. BP Myers

    @Phil Gallagher says: Or how about our current secretary of state basically calling him a [liar] to his face.

    The good news is he’s replacing a demonstrated liar.

    (See: Tillman, Pat)

  9. Mike Benedict

    What’s missing in this whole discussion over who is the right commander is what the end-goal is. Obama has already set the timetable for removing troops — and outsmarted the army brass into agreeing to it. So if that’s the end-goal, Obama will win this one. If the end-goal is to make a civilized nation out of Afghanistan, no one will pull that off in our lifetime, or anyone else’s.

  10. tobe berkovitz

    Profiles in courage? Hardly. This was a lay-up. The tough decisions have to be made about what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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