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."

(Continued from Page 1)

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.


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.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Photos of the Crowds That Took Over NYC for the People’s Climate March

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

I Wrote a Novel Envisioning a Nigerian Space Program. Then I Learned Nigeria Actually Has One.

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 22 2014 9:39 AM Adrian Peterson Has a Terrible Contract, and Cutting Him Would Save the Vikings a Lot of Money
The Eye
Sept. 22 2014 9:12 AM What Is This Singaporean Road Sign Trying to Tell Us?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 8:08 AM Slate Voice: “Why Is So Much Honey Clover Honey?” Mike Vuolo shares the story of your honey.
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 7:47 AM Predicting the Future for the U.S. Government The strange but satisfying work of creating the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends report.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.