The talk of the town in Washington this week has been the dual confirmation hearings of General David Petraeus and a nominee for the US Supreme Court, Elena Kagan.
The has been a mixed verdict in the papers and online, however, for Barack Obama’s move to appoint Petraeus following the implosion of General Stanley McChrystal‘s tenure. The Petraeus pick has been seen as positive in the short term, solving an immediate generalship problem but not necessarily resolving the long-term difficulty of successfully extracting the US from Afghanistan.
Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times gave a positive review of Obama’s general-juggling, calling it a shining moment for the president. “But he emerged from this test looking crisp and decisive — in a word, presidential,” said Boot. Petraeus also emerges looking like the ideal soldier who also believes there is still some good to come out of Afghanistan.
“A career counsellor would no doubt advise him to pass up this job and let some other general risk failure. But he unhesitatingly stepped into the breach,” added Boot.
For Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, the whole McChrystal flap is a blessing in disguise. Petraeus is the right man coming in at the right time when the “counterterrorism” vs “counter-insurgency” debate is still raging and doubts are being raised from all corners:
Petraeus’s record shows he has public relations and people skills that he will sorely need, not only to help build a security infrastructure over there, but also to explain its purpose and smooth ruffled features back home.
However, as the war has drags on, many are expressing doubts about the current US strategy and ability to hand over control to the Afghans. Commentators’ warnings are made more dour by a mixed result in the securing of Marjah, a delayed campaign in Kandahar, corruption in the Afghan central government, a more difficult geography than Iraq.
Maureen Dowd in the New York Times said the Petraeus Manoeuvre is still not enough to burnish Obama’s reputation. “He looked good firing McChrystal, but those crisp moments need to come more often and more swiftly,” wrote Dowd.
Dowd added that the appointment eliminates Petraeus as a possible challenger to Obama for the hot seat in the White House, but the replacement implies the continuation of a sure-to-fail strategy: “But choosing Petraeus means re-upping with a fatally flawed policy, not revamping it.”
The commentator and former presidential candidate Patrick J Buchanan argued that Obama could look foolish later on for firing the general responsible for the current strategy “over some stupid insults from staff officers to some counterculture magazine”.
He added, if Obama sticks to his guns on the deadline and Petraeus resigns over it, the general could become a perfect Republican pick for vice-president in the 2012 elections. “And that could send Barack Obama home to Chicago,” said Buchanan.
Jed Babbin, a former deputy undersecretary of defence under George H W Bush, asked the general his own five questions. Babbin in the end suggested that Obama’s current policy is unsuited for success, which requires preventing the Taliban from returning.
“Petraeus should explain how that can — or can’t — be accomplished in Afghanistan with Obama’s wavering policy,” said Babbin. “If Iraq is the measure of the permanence of what can be accomplished by the American method of counter-insurgency, the answer is clear: it cannot.”
The key discussion is now about whether Petraeus can comply with Obama’s July 2011 deadline to begin pulling out US troops.
Marc Thiessen, writing in the Washington Post, argued that it is a foregone conclusion that the deadline is doomed to oblivion, which could end up costing the US the war.
“Petraeus may not be able to quell the insurgency in Afghanistan if the president does not untie his hands,” wrote Thiessen. “As Missouri Senator Kit Bond put it, if the withdrawal date stands, Obama is ‘setting [Petraeus] up for failure’.”
Gareth Porter, in his piece titled “Why Petraeus won’t salvage this war” in Foreign Policy magazine, argues that Petraeus is not going to swear to end the war in 18 months. But, he says, the general is also a realist who isn’t going to “get sucked into such an open-ended war”.
George Packer in the New Yorker lists the major problems facing the new general and how his mould for fixing Iraq may not fit Afghanistan.
“American goals in Afghanistan remain vague, the means inadequate, the timetable foreshortened,” said Packer. “We are nation-building without admitting it, and conducting counter-insurgency on our own clock, not the Afghans’.”
Finally, Ben Smith and Laura Rozen, chiming in on Policito.com, said Petraeus’s connections among Republicans and Democrats could help keep them on board with the war effort. But that same popularity could turn around and bite Obama down the line:
“If he chose to, he could pose a genuine challenge to Obama, should they at some point differ on the course of the war. Petraeus would be ‘much harder to fire than McChrystal’, said Michael Pearlman, a retired historian from the United States Army Command . . .”
Adding to the mix, a recent USA Today/Gallup poll shows that a majority of Americans (58 per cent) favour a withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan.
At this point in history, the US is stuck between Iraq and a hard place, Afghanistan. Despite praise for his decision to tap Petraeus, Obama is still caught between ensuring success in Afghanistan after nine years there and ensuring success in 2012, when he asks the voters to re-up his four-year tour of duty in the White House.