A knotty problem. Ideally Iraq will fall apart on his watch, thereby destroying his heroic reputation and making it difficult for him to quit as head of MNF-I lest he be seen as leaving his men behind in the field. But what if things continue to stabilize? Then you’ve got nothing but bad and less bad options. You can’t fire him or else the wingnuts (and brass) will make hay about Democratic weakness. You don’t really want to make him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs since it would raise his profile further, to Powellian heights. How about burying him with a five-year term as head of Centcom, where he’ll be responsible for carrying out the Democratic president’s retreat orders? That’ll knock that halo right off his buzzcut head.
A Democratic president, in short, should expect that in four years, Petraeus is coming for her or him. So what’s to be done?…
That leaves an unconventional option. The president can give Petraeus a promotion he can’t refuse. There are really only three that suit the bill: Petraeus can either become commander of all forces in the Middle East; NATO commander (as the Times reported may soon happen); or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While the chairman is on paper the military’s senior officer, it may not be the right post for Petraeus, since the job is outside the military chain of command. It would be shrewder to give Petraeus one of the two most prestigious command assignments in the military as the final assignment of his career. (The military would probably see that as more respectful move, as well.) Putting Petraeus at Central Command would have an added benefit for a Democratic president: he would be tasked with overseeing a plan to draw troops down from Iraq, thereby making him complicit in the undoing of his chief political advantage. And there’s another advantage to making Petraeus a regional commander: those jobs are five-year assignments. Should he prematurely resign his command to plan a presidential run, he’ll both appear craven and be open to the charge of deserting his post in wartime. (As he would if he turned down any of the three assignments offered him.)
We should probably be thinking ahead too, in case McCain or Romney surprises Hillary in November. Any military readers know of any promising left-leaning colonels or generals who might do well enough in command given the chance to pose political problems down the line? The new Republican president will want to kneecap them ASAP so that he doesn’t end up with any dilemmas like this himself come 2012.
Exit question: What if Petraeus is a Democrat?