Obama, Petraeus must not act like rivals

June 29, 2010


For the second time in four years, a president has asked Gen. David Petraeus to ride to the rescue.

Having sacked Gen. Stanley McChrystal for disrespectful behavior, President Obama turned to Petraeus to save the effort in Afghanistan, just as George W. Bush got the general to bail him out in 2007 in Iraq. Already, the Web is abuzz over whether Petraeus can do for Obama what he did for his predecessor.

The answer depends on whether Obama recognizes that Petraeus is potentially a natural ally — not a rival trying to outsmart him. Only then is the president likely to give the general the support he needs to succeed.

Petraeus’ close relationship with Bush, and his superstar status, did not endear him to the Obama team. Some believed Petraeus wanted to run as a Republican for the presidency in 2012, no matter how many times the general denied such ambitions.

Jonathan Alter writes in The Promise: President Obama, Year One that Obama worried about being boxed in by Petraeus on Afghanistan, and tried to turn the tables by stipulating a July 2011 deadline for troop withdrawal.

However, last week, Obama had to turn to Petraeus as the only general who could ensure continuity after McChrystal’s departure, and who might be able to rescue the Afghanistan effort. This has renewed speculation that the general might maneuver Obama into an endless troop commitment.

I think, however, that the president and Petraeus have the basis for a solid alliance. If Obama grasps this, the two may achieve an outcome in Afghanistan that’s better than most Web pundits foresee.

As Thomas Ricks pointed out in the Washington Post, Petraeus is much more like Obama than he is like Bush. The African American commander in chief and the Dutch American general are both sons of immigrant fathers. Both are highly intelligent and coolly cerebral.

I’d add: Both men’s reputations will be defined by how the Afghan conflict ends.

Petraeus has accepted a technical demotion to take on this strategically critical assignment. (At present, as head of Central Command, he is in charge of U.S. troops in all of the Middle East and South Asia.) The reputation he earned in Baghdad, along with that of the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy he developed, is now on the line.

As for Obama, the Afghan war has become his war. Sure, a messy pullback in 2011-12 might please his base. But it won’t help him at the polls if he leaves behind a country controlled by the Taliban, where jihadis are training to attack Western targets - and to take over nuclear-armed Pakistan next door.

So both men badly need a solution in Afghanistan that is not a patent failure. Moreover, both are pragmatists, skilled at divining what’s possible and jettisoning unrealistic goals.

As he demonstrated in Iraq, Petraeus is capable of modifying counterinsurgency strategy to fit the circumstances, and of taking advantage of unexpected opportunities. He well understands that the U.S. public won’t tolerate a war that drags on indefinitely. (He wrote his doctoral thesis on the Vietnam War.) He also knows that Afghans won’t tolerate an endless presence of foreign troops.

If President Obama recognizes that his interests parallel those of Petraeus, he can take essential steps to help the general. First, he needs to shape up his civilian team working on Afghanistan and ensure it can work with the military. (Petraeus believes strongly in such partnership, as he showed in Iraq.)

Obama says he won’t be making more changes to this team, but he may have to. The U.S. ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, was openly at odds with McChrystal over strategy. And the clumsy mechanism of having a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has often been more disruptive than helpful. Perhaps Petraeus’ diplomatic skills can help unify this group; if not, a further shake-up is needed — soon.

Second, Obama should stop talking up his July 2011 deadline and have his security team do likewise. Vice President Biden said that in July 2011 “you’ll see a whole lot of people moving out” of Afghanistan, but Petraeus has downplayed this date. The president has been vague on his interpretation. The uncertain meaning of 7/11 is undercutting the war.

That’s because the heart of Petraeus’ COIN doctrine revolves around changing the perceptions of insurgents and tribal leaders. If Afghans think Americans are headed for the exits, they won’t stand up to the Taliban. If the Taliban think they are winning, they won’t come in from the cold.

Conversely, a stronger U.S. commitment to the fight may persuade tribal leaders to push back against the Taliban, and make a U.S. drawdown more feasible. That’s Petraeus’ goal.

Democrats criticized Bush for throwing his full weight behind Petraeus, yet that support enabled the general to save Bush from an Iraq debacle. Without similar backing, Petraeus can’t salvage a decent outcome in Afghanistan. Much hangs on whether Obama and Petraeus can bond.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Richard Heckler 7 years, 11 months ago

The USA government war machine is not well respected around the world make no mistake about it.

The multi trillion dollar war is one of the things breaking the bank. WE taxpayers cannot afford war mongering and occupying other countries. 50 new military bases were built in Iraq...this is absurd. The largest american embassy in the world was built in Baghdad at a cost of a billion dollars which is more like a 600 room luxury hotel for the USA takeover of the Iraq oil fields. This is simply nuts.

Do we want to bury the USA in arrogance and debt to other governments?

President Obama should have replaced Robert Gates on day one for brother Bob is a war monger. He'll never end the war. He is among the Bush familiy of politicians. Notice how the war has expanded instead of winding down.

CIA Veteran: How Robert Gates Cooked the Intelligence


In some home town meetings across the nation on Saturday sponsored by conservative republicans 51% of participants said cut defense spending. The meetings entitled "America Speaks - Our Budget Our Economy spoke very clear on this matter.

The dead bodies and trillions of dollars as a result of war need to stop!

Isn't it odd. The USA provided weapons to the Taliban to chase out Russia who wanted the same thing our war mongers want --- the oil.

So why is it okay for the USA to wage war on countries that did NOT attack the USA when it was NOT okay for Russia to wage war?

President Obama is wayyyyyyyyy too concerned about bi-partisanship. Republicans do not give a damn and haven't for 30 years.

Centerville 7 years, 11 months ago

Leave it to Trudy to imagine that these two have anything in common!

Godot 7 years, 11 months ago

Obama to Petraeus: Here's the deal. You take a demotion and clean up this Afghanistan mess, or Eric Holder brings you up on charges. Let me be perfectly clear, the charges we make up will be very serious in nature. You will spend the rest of your life paying for what you did in Iraq. Petraeus: You have made an offer I cannot refuse.

Obama to Emanuel: Do you what you have to do to see that he fails.

Flap Doodle 7 years, 11 months ago

That sounds like just like the Chicago thug that Dear Leader is at heart.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 11 months ago

So did you make this up all by yourself? Or is this the latest alternate reality from the wackosphere?

Paul R Getto 7 years, 11 months ago

"Once Barack attacks the non arabic state of Iran prior to November..." === Tarball: I hope you are wrong, but you may have this one pegged. Sam Brownback's cult, The Family, has wanted a piece of Iran for a long time. Since these 'christian' dirtballs corrupt politicians from both parties with their ancient fantasies and their 'warrior jesus' stuff, it could happen. The Dark Lord Cheney, if he lives that long, would also be thrilled. If we start another BS war (two and counting) get ready for a draft.

uncleandyt 7 years, 11 months ago

McChrystal is free to cash in on all of his "hard work". If he wants to, he can be an All-American Defense Contractor. That will be glorious. Maybe he can set a new record for bomb sales. It is so awesome that We were victorious in Iraq. I think that it might be really nice over there now. It took awhile, but people eventually get accustomed to life without electricity, clean water, sewers, sanitation, homes, family, friends and neighbors. If Petraeus can work his unique and special magic on the PEOPLE of Afghanistan, like he did for the Iraqis, God will have no doubt that We are indeed number one !!!

Kontum1972 7 years, 11 months ago

plenty of arm-chair generals here....lol i know P-4 personally..he was my boss...do not under-estimate his potential he wrote the book on counter-insurgency, in kansas...he is brilliant.....

obtw....he does not own a TV, he has a huge library in his home.

armchair generals, sit back and watch.....he will be the Talibans worst nightmare....the troops love and respect him......it was a great honor to serve under him as a civilian.

The iraqis respected him he speaks fluent arabic and his cadre' are the finest he only picks the best to be in his entourage.

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