Petraeus the Great
Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010 8:01 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON – The review of Afghanistan policy that President Obama promised is scheduled for December, after the midterm elections, and reports have begun appearing that there will be no major reevaluation, that at best the policy will be tweaked. What is uppermost in the minds of those who supported Obama is whether his commitment to begin drawing down the troops in July 2011 will be fulfilled, or whether the most powerful general in recent history, David Petraeus, might slow down the president’s planned exodus.
Petraeus is in a strong position to work his will because Obama, after firing the last two commanders serving in Afghanistan, cannot afford to oust a third. This is especially true given Petraeus’ track record. His surge strategy saved the war in Iraq from total disaster, and he has the confidence of Republicans and Democrats alike. Until he signed on for the Afghanistan command, Republicans were touting him as a possible presidential candidate for the GOP in 2012.
He is the golden boy, which means he is immune from being fired unless he openly defies the president, and Petraeus is too smart, and too political, to do that. But he does have enormous power, enough to make those who understand the importance of maintaining civilian command nervous about whether the situation could get out of hand. For example, Obama never said how many troops he would like to initially withdraw, but he implied a significant reduction in force, let’s say perhaps 30 percent for argument’s sake.
Petraeus on the other hand whenever he does an interview emphasizes that any withdrawal will be conditions based, and for those who read between the lines, it looks like Petraeus would prefer nominal reductions, let’s say perhaps 3 percent, which suggests a wide gulf between what the president envisions and what Petraeus is probably prepared to deliver. If Obama should balk, all Petraeus has to do is threaten to resign. There’s no way a president gearing up for reelection and who will face attacks from the opposition saying he’s not tough enough is going to let his top general walk.
Petraeus essentially has a veto over Obama’s war policy in Afghanistan, so the question becomes whether he will mishandle the position he’s been given. No general likes to lose a war, and he may be tempted to push the American presence beyond what Obama wants, trying to secure a victory that looks more elusive with each passing month in a war that has already been prosecuted for nine years. Petraeus, a scholar as well as a soldier, understands the limits of American power. But even within those limits, there are a lot of choices that must be made, and they could be different from what Obama would prefer.
There is no evidence that Obama and Petraeus have reached any kind of crossroad or that they don’t see eye to eye on the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But no matter how sane and responsible Petraeus is, it’s never a good idea to instill in a military commander the decisions that are constitutionally reserved for civilian command.
Published in The Messenger 10.11.10