The larger questions now are whether the President can exert as much policy discipline over his civilian subordinates as he has on the military—and whether he's willing to make a political investment in the war commensurate with the military sacrifice.Such ambiguity is unacceptable when we have our troops fighting and dying and are asking Afghan villagers to risk their family's lives by throwing in with us.
Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge the first point in his remarks yesterday, saying that he had warned his national security team that, when it comes to war strategy, "I won't tolerate division." We hope that message got through to Vice President Joe Biden, whose opposition to the strategy has been leaked around the world and back, and who was recently quoted by Newsweek's Jonathan Alter as saying that "in July 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out [of Afghanistan], bet on it."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates flatly contradicted the Veep on Fox News Sunday, insisting "that absolutely has not been decided," and that the July 2011 date was only a "starting point" for withdrawal, contingent on local conditions.
The President ought to put this debate to rest, rather than trying to appease his liberal base by promising withdrawal while winking and nodding to our partners in Afghanistan that the deadline is effectively meaningless.
So far, his ambiguity has fueled the very infighting that led to General McChrystal's dismissal, persuaded our NATO partners to prepare their own exit strategies, and convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he can't count on America's long-term support. The damage isn't merely the deadline but the sense projected by Mr. Biden that the U.S. will leave the Afghans in the lurch again, much as we did at the end of the Cold War.
In addition, there is no benefit in having a divided civilian group over there in Afghanistan who are undercutting our mission there.
The President could help on this score by deploying a civilian team to Afghanistan that gets along with their U.S. military counterparts and Afghanistan's leaders. We like Senator John McCain's suggestion to replace U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry—whose relationship with Mr. Karzai is as poisonous as his dealings were with General McChrystal—with former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker. Mr. Crocker, who also previously served as a highly effective U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, understands there is no diplomatic mileage to be gained by undercutting the very government the U.S. is seeking to shore up.And the President needs to devote a fraction of his public attention and supposed sales abilities to the war in Afghanistan as he does to his domestic priorities.
Above all, Mr. Obama has to give General Petraeus more political backing and personal attention to the war than he has so far provided. It's remarkable that it took the firing of General McChrystal to hear again from Mr. Obama, for the first time in months, why he is committed to the war. Mr. Obama said yesterday that no one individual is indispensable in war, but if any single person is, it is a President. Mr. Obama too often gives the impression of a leader asking, "Won't someone rid me of this damn war?"Victor Davis Hanson notes the irony of Obama having to go to the general he spent his time as senator chastising for the surge in Iraq strategy.
In choosing to throw a Hail Mary pass to General Petraeus, the President has chosen a commander who understands counterinsurgency, who helped to design the current Afghan strategy, and who knows how to lead and motivate soldiers. He—and they—need a Commander in Chief willing to show equal commitment and staying power.
A final note: It is one of ironies of our present warped climate that Petraeus will face far less criticism from the media and politicians than during 2007–8 (there will be no more “General Betray Us” ads or “suspension of disbelief” ridicule), because his success this time will reflect well on Obama rather than George Bush. It is a further irony that Obama is surging with Petraeus despite not long ago declaring that such a strategy and such a commander were failures in Iraq. And it is an even further irony that he is now rightly calling for “common purpose” when — again not long ago, at a critical juncture in Iraq — Obama himself, for partisan purposes on the campaign trail, had no interest in the common purpose of military success in Iraq.