Like A Rolling Stone, Part II

Bruce Drake at Politics Daily:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA DELIVERS REMARKS ON GENERAL STANLEY A. MCCHRYSTAL

JUNE 23, 2010

[*] OBAMA: Good afternoon.

Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. I did so with considerable regret, but also with certainty that it is the right thing for our mission in Afghanistan, for our military, and for our country.

I’m also pleased to nominate General David Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan, which will allow us to maintain the momentum and leadership that we need to succeed.

I don’t make this decision based on any difference in policy with General McChrystal, as we are in full agreement about our strategy. Nor do I make this decision out of any sense of personal insult. Stan McChrystal has always shown great courtesy and carried out my orders faithfully. I’ve got great admiration for him and for his long record of service in uniform.

Over the last nine years, with America fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has earned a reputation as one of our nation’s finest soldiers. That reputation is founded upon his extraordinary dedication, his deep intelligence and his love of country.

I’ve relied on his service, particularly in helping to design and lead our new strategy in Afghanistan.

So all Americans should be grateful for General McChrystal’s remarkable career in uniform.

But war is bigger than any one man or woman, whether a private, a general or a president. And as difficult as it is to lose General McChrystal, I believe that it is the right decision for our national security.

Andrew Sullivan rounds-up reactions.

Ed Morrissey:

Obama appears to have split the baby rather adeptly here, softening the blow of losing McChrystal by arguably trading up for the legendary Petraeus.  That should dampen criticism over cashiering McChrystal, especially among Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Rich Lowry at The Corner:

I’m not sure how Obama could have handled this any better. He was genuinely graceful about McChrystal and his explanation of why he had to go made perfect sense. He called for unity within his adminstration in pursuing the war and sounded quite stalwart about both the war and about the strategy. More importantly, his choice of Petraeus as a replacement for McChrystal is a brilliant move: He gets a heavy-weight, an unassailable expert in this kind of warfare, and someone who presumably can step in pretty seamlessly. He also picked someone who has expressed (very diplomatic) misgivings about the July 2011 deadline and who will have the clout and credibility to tell the president that he can’t afford to go down in troops when July comes, should circumstances warrant. (It should also be noted that this is a step down for Petraeus and he can’t relish directly managing another war — that he will do so speaks to his selfless patriotism.) In short, Obama has made the most of a rotten situation.

Max Boot at Commentary:

If there is one general who can step quickly  into the top job in Afghanistan, it is Petraeus, who has been closely involved in formulating the campaign plan along with McChrystal. And if there is one general who knows how to handle the media and the political process (skills that McChrystal obviously lacked), it is Petraeus. That doesn’t mean that he is a “political general” — that dreaded epithet applied by combat soldiers to those who get ahead by playing office politics rather than by proving their worth on the battlefield. Petraeus has proven himself at every level of command, on the battlefield and off. His courage cannot be doubted. Neither can his skill. Already in Iraq, he has pulled off the greatest turnaround in American military history since Matthew Ridgway took over the 8th Army in 1950 during the dark days of the Korean War. Now he has to do it again in Afghanistan. Don’t bet against him.

As for General McChrystal, it is a tragedy that his sterling career has come to such an inglorious end. McChrystal is widely admired, especially in the Special Operations community, and for good reason. He turned the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq into a well-honed killing machine. He also did much to improve the situation in Afghanistan, injecting fresh energy into the war effort and designing a campaign plan that can succeed. He deserves enormous credit, too, for declaring in his first major report to the president last summer that the war effort would fail without a fresh injection of troops. That prompted Obama to send more troops, which now gives the NATO command a shot at success. Unfortunately the Rolling Stone incident showed that he was not quite ready to operate at the highest strategic level, where discretion and judgment are prized, and where Special-Forces swagger can be a liability.

But President Obama should not fool himself into thinking that, by replacing McChrystal with Petraeus, he has magically solved all of the problems with the war effort. There is still that little matter of the looming deadline — July 2011 — for troop withdrawals. Vice President Biden is pulling for a rapid pullout, and Defense Secretary Gates is taking a go-slow approach. McChrystal has been firmly aligned with Gates, while the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has publicly backed the “light footprint” approach advocated by Biden. That tension will not disappear because of the change of command; Petraeus is a firm believer in the need for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign, just as McChrystal was. So far, President Obama has been mum on what the deadline means and how many troops will actually come out. He should back his new commander with a firm pledge to make any withdrawal strictly contingent on conditions being met, and he should leave open the possibility of sending more troops if necessary.

Tom Ricks at Foreign Policy:

So, for the second time in three years, Gen. David Petraeus is bailing out a president.

Afghanistan 2010 may be an even tougher nut than Iraq 2007. Sure, Iraq looked like a mess back then, but the Americans hadn’t tried a lot of good ideas. In Afghanistan they have been trying them out and not finding them working very well. Counterinsurgency was a novel idea in Baghdad back then. It is not anything new in Kabul right now. Our biggest problem in Afghanistan is the government we are supporting there, and it isn’t clear to me what Petraeus can do about that.

Putting Petraeus in command in Afghanistan is only the first step. Now, what to do about Ambassador Eikenberry and special envoy Holbrooke?

My second big concern is what happens to Iraq now. As readers of this blog know, I am very worried about trends there. If Iraq begins to fall apart, and Petraeus is busy in Kabul, who is going to step on? At the very least, they should consider extending General Odierno’s time there.

I thought Obama’s talk was rhetorically perfect, hitting all the right notes in explaining why McChrystal had to go, while paying tribute to McChrystal’s service. The only big question he left hanging in just what happens to Central Command. Will Petraeus try to have both commands? Will someone else take over? With Pakistan, Iran and other Middle Eastern issues bubbling out there, this is a question that needs to be addressed ASAP.

Matthew Yglesias:

A bit oddly the only person I heard calling for this “fire McChrystal, replace him with Petraeus” move yesterday was Bill Kristol. I assumed he was just throwing something out there so outside the box that he could criticize Obama no matter what happens. Instead he got his way. I’ll be eager to see the reaction.

Adam Serwer at Tapped:

Conservatives recognized that McChrystal needed to be disciplined but wanted him to stay, largely because they were concerned his departure would mean a shift in strategy. Despite the tendency of the political press to describe military commanders in near-mythological terms, McChrystal is not irreplaceable, not even for those who want to see the current counterinsurgency strategy continue. With Gen. David Petraeus stepping in as his replacement, those on the right concerned with strategic continuity can breathe easy. Obama stressed that “we have a clear goal, we are going to break the Taliban’s momentum, we are going to build Afghan capacity, we are going to relentlessly apply pressure on al-Qaeda and its leadership, strengthening the ability of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to do the same,” essentially reaffirming his commitment to the strategy decided on last fall. Petraeus’ Senate confirmation is likely to go through without incident.

Liberals were hoping that McChrystal’s departure would offer an opportunity for the administration to rethink a strategy that some suspect was adopted largely due to political pressure to continue the mission.They point to the recent difficulties in Marjah as evidence the strategy isn’t working to dislodge or weaken the Taliban, and maintain that the structure and corruption of the Afghan government is an intractable problem. At the very least, they would have liked a serious re-evaluation of the viability of the current counterinsurgency strategy.

The appointment of Gen. Petraeus is likely to squelch any such discussion before it gets started. The near superhero status Petraeus enjoys isn’t simply due to his intelligence or capability as a leader — it’s also the result of media mythmaking about the Iraq War. Despite the ease with which the country has come to adopt the narrative that the 2007 troop escalation and the shift to a counterinsurgency strategy singlehandedly turned the Iraq War around, it remains untrue. As Michael Cohen helpfully continues to remind us, there were a number of factors involved, including ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, the Sunni tribes turning on al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq and the Sadr ceasefire.

These things are complicated though, and it’s easier both for the press and for the general audience to shoehorn the complicated story of the turnaround in Iraq into a single epic narrative starring an indomitable warrior-hero, and the media won’t be able to resist the temptation to call this a sequel. The problem with flattening these things into facile narratives is that it dissuades Americans from thinking critically about the implications — both moral and practical — of important policy decisions. Which — aside from his admirable record — is surely part of why Petraeus was chosen.

EARLIER: Like A Rolling Stone

UPDATE: Marc Ambinder

Ed Morrissey

Luke Johnson at The Washington Independent

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1 Comment

Filed under Af/Pak, Military Issues, Political Figures

One response to “Like A Rolling Stone, Part II

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

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