Most analysts yesterday gave Barack Obama credit for a brilliant political stroke in assigning General David Petraeus to replace General Stanley McChrystal when Obama had to fire his field commander after an embarrassing article in Rolling Stone magazine. Petraeus has such a sterling reputation for leadership and COIN implementation that it negated or at least muted any criticism Obama received for cashiering McChrystal in the middle of the surge, and it will almost immediately rebuild confidence in the mission to see the wizard of the Iraq War back in action. Some, like Tunku Varadarajan at the Daily Beast, see a more Machiavellian political impulse in sending Petraeus as far away from the US as possible in 2010 (via Instapundit):
Barack Obama, who has in recent days turned haplessness into an art form, played a masterstroke today, making perhaps the canniest, wiliest, even wisest decision of his generally rudderless presidency. I refer, of course, to his appointment of David Petraeus to the Afghan war command, in place of the Rolling-Stoned Stanley McChrystal. In doing so, Obama has, at a stroke, taken Petraeus out of the 2012 presidential race.
Keep your friends close—and the competition closer. There has been a buzz about Petraeus and the presidency since about the fall of last year, and to many in the Republican Party—a party bereft of ideas and credible leaders—the general has increasingly taken on the aspect of a possible messiah. His impeccable military credentials, his undoubted intelligence, his mastery of personal and professional politics (you wouldn’t catch him talking to Rolling Stone in a million years), plus his undoubted (if carefully tailored) conservatism have led many to see in him a man who can take on Obama in 2012, and beat him. He is even the sort of guy who’d allow the GOP to broaden its tent, drawing in “undecideds” and independents.
This can no longer happen. And Obama’s brilliant move also preserves his own Afghan war strategy (which is effectively a Petraeus-McChrystal strategy). So, in throwing out the “McChrystal bathwater,” he has been careful not to jettison the “policy baby.”
It’s an interesting academic exercise, but that’s all it is. If Petraeus really wanted to run for President, he most likely would have retired after watching Barack Obama dither for months about properly resourcing the strategy that Obama had demanded for three years. For a traditional run at the presidency, Petraeus would have to have been out of uniform by the end of the year, and probably before the midterms if he really wanted to start building a political base for a national run.
Nor does this take Petraeus fully out of the ballgame, either. Obama has set a timeline for the surge that Petraeus will now run that would see us start drawing down troops in Afghanistan by around July of 2011. Assuming that stays on track, Petraeus would no longer be needed as the COIN strategy would have to change. He could retire at that point and hope to ride a wave to the top of the Republican primary heap on whatever successes he gains in Afghanistan in the next year.
Again, though, that assumes that Petraeus wanted to run for President at all. He has repeatedly denied having any political ambitions, which has convinced no one, as a general would have to deny such ambitions while still in uniform. We saw the same play unfold with Colin Powell repeatedly, with Republicans swooning over having him at the top of the ticket from the Gulf War until Powell became Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s first term. That’s actually instructive as a cautionary tale as well. When Powell finally joined the political sphere, many of those who wanted the commander in Powell were sorely disappointed by the politician, once that side of Powell finally emerged.
Petraeus is almost certainly going to where he wants to be — leading an army in battle for his nation and hoping to catch lightning in a COIN bottle twice. Obama was smart enough to get Petraeus back in the game. And that’s probably as far as the politics go.