Jennifer, Max, and Abe have been covering the McChrystal incident superbly. Beyond eschewing redundancy, however, I’ve been reticent about chiming in because I would be happier not to say what I really think, which is that President Obama’s current approach to Afghanistan wasn’t going to stand or fall with General McChrystal, and can’t be salvaged by General Petraeus.
A number of commentators have echoed Peter Wehner’s point that Obama did the right thing and chose the right man this week, and I agree with that. Obama did look decisive and presidential yesterday. I had John’s comments on the silly Maureen Dowd piece in mind as I watched Obama’s speech, thinking that it’s the military’s own traditions and character — distasteful as they are to Ms. Dowd — that endowed the removal of McChrystal with its air of statesmanlike decision. Everyone in uniform knew what the right answer was. There was absolute, uncomplaining loyalty from Obama’s senior military staffers to the boss and his decision, painful and unfortunate though it was.
As Jennifer has pointed out, looking decisive and presidential is out of character for this commander in chief. But loyal subordinates can and should make a boss look good. Even the best bosses would readily acknowledge how often the loyalty of the troops has saved their backsides. The military as an institution is particularly effective in this regard. I don’t grudge any president his recourse to the image-enhancing infrastructure of military culture.
Nevertheless, we shouldn’t exaggerate the signal sent about Obama’s leadership by a personnel shift that was essentially thrust on him by a discipline problem. Unlike other celebrated personnel replacements made by war-time presidents — Lincoln, Truman, the younger Bush — the replacement of McChrystal was not prompted by this president’s strategic concern about the conduct of the war. That is Obama’s great failing; what he owes the armed forces that do his bidding is precisely that strategic concern.
George W. Bush gave Bob Gates, Ryan Crocker, and David Petraeus a level of strategic concern — attention, political investment, diplomatic cover — that enabled them to adopt an executable plan for Iraq and then execute it. What Obama has done, by contrast, is take McChrystal’s original executable plan and, after months of seemingly aimless deliberation, compromise its executability.
It’s quite true that the surge in Afghanistan has not truly begun yet; current events are not a judgment on the surge’s effectiveness. We can give Petraeus time and keep our hopes up. But there is already pressure being exerted against the surge by myriad factors in Afghanistan and the region, from Iran’s radical interests to Pakistan’s stability problems, India’s security concerns, Russia’s devious ambivalence about our presence, and the motley array of terrorists seeking their fortunes in the Afghan countryside. Many of these factors can’t be addressed with military force. They are outside Petraeus’s purview. Dealing with them requires a horse-trading, arm-twisting diplomacy that must be handled by ambassadors and envoys — actors who, up to now, are variously reported to be inert or dysfunctional — and can’t be successful without the president’s overt leadership.
I remain skeptical that Obama’s performance in this regard will change. The military specializes in executing big decisions efficiently, but Petraeus’s leadership is not enough to bring success out of a surge that carries an expiration date, supported half-heartedly by the Oval Office. The latter conditions still need to change, not just rhetorically but materially, if Petraeus is to have the chance he is unquestionably the best man to make use of.