Naming David Petraeus to replace Stanley McChrystal is a stroke of personnel genius.

Military analysis.
June 23 2010 4:36 PM

McChrystal: Gone and Soon Forgotten

Naming Petraeus in his place is a stroke of personnel genius.

Also in Slate, John Dickerson calls Barack Obama's tapping David Petraeus to replace McChrystal "Crisis Management 101."

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For better or for worse, this is Obama's war. His differences with McChrystal had nothing to do with policy.

The war and the counterinsurgency strategy are, clearly, not going very well. Yet it was always extremely unlikely that Obama would change course, at least not until December, when his commanders are scheduled to conduct a comprehensive assessment of their progress. Firing McChrystal was bound to make many important players—U.S. troops and their officers, allied commanders, and the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan—wonder about Obama's commitment to the strategy. Replacing McChrystal with Petraeus should allay those worries, as well as frustrate the strategy's critics and perhaps the Taliban insurgents, too.

Petraeus is taking a demotion, from commander of the entire region, to take this post. One can imagine Obama's sales pitch, telling the general that he's the only American who could take over from McChrystal without any need to work up to speed and, therefore, without causing further delays in the (already much-slowed-down) military operation. It's the sort of pitch that Petraeus would have a hard time turning down, in part out of a sense of duty, in part because he, too, has a personal and professional stake in the mission's success.

By taking the assignment, Petraeus also gains enormous leverage, should he decide to use it. A year ago, Obama, at the urging of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, relieved Gen. David McKiernan of command in Afghanistan in order to hire Gen. McChrystal, who seemed more suitable for the new strategy. Obama would find it extremely difficult to fire Petraeus, who is much more of a household name, a year hence, even if he had good reason to do so.

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The good news is that Petraeus and his entourage have displayed, over the years, nothing of the contempt for civilian control that the Rolling Stone piece revealed was running rampant in McChrystal's shop. (One Pentagon official, who knows both generals, said yesterday, well before it was clear that McChrystal would go, much less who would replace him, "It's unimaginable that Petraeus and his people would act this way, even without a reporter standing around.") Petraeus is much more disciplined, much more politically attuned, in every sense of the phrase.

One question still open is whether McChrystal's is but the first shoe to drop. In his Rose Garden speech, Obama emphasized the need for "unity of effort" within the U.S. national-security team and across the multinational alliance. Given McChrystal's trash talk toward both, Obama said he couldn't achieve that unity, and thus couldn't meet success in Afghanistan, "without making this change."

Still, canning McChrystal doesn't end the dysfunctional disunity that has plagued the war effort for many months. The U.S. ambassador, Gen. Karl Eikenberry, is on record as stating that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is an unsuitable partner for a counterinsurgency campaign. He may be right—he almost certainly is right—but, since counterinsurgency cannot succeed without a suitable partner heading the national government, Eikenberry is in essence disagreeing with the policy. His relations with McChrystal were exacerbated by the fact that the two men are longtime rivals; but those personal animosities clouded a professional tension that is probably untenable. If U.S. policy isn't going to change, Eikenberry, too, should go.

Richard Holbrooke should be sent packing, as well. He's the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but after he screamed at Karzai at one of their meetings, he's no longer welcome at the palace in Kabul. (It took a trip by Sen. John Kerry and 300 cups of tea to settle the Afghan president down.) Holbrooke would have been canned a while ago, were it not for special pleading by his immediate boss and longtime friend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, as Obama said today, "War is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general, or a president." He should expand the list to include "a special envoy."

A final word: On Tuesday, I predicted that Obama would stick with McChrystal, in part because the general's dissings of civilian authority didn't extend to a dispute over policy, in part because losing him as commander might be seen as jeopardizing the mission. It turns out that the president took his constitutional responsibilities, and his obligations as commander in chief, more seriously than I thought he might—and figured out a way to do so without compromising the mission in the slightest. Who wouldn't be impressed?

Click here to go to Slate V and see Obama explains his firing of Gen. McChrystal.

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