Barack Obama‘s ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of US forces in Afghanistan—and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus, who will step down as chief of Central Command—appears to represent a strategic shift within the administration. As a senator, Barack Obama opposed Petraeus’ “surge” in Iraq, declared it would fail, and called for troop withdrawals. Now President Obama has turned to Petraeus to revive his own “surge” in Afghanistan.
Petraeus won hero status as author of the Iraq “surge,” which has been widely portrayed as a “success”—inaccurately, we argue. The relative de-escalation of violence in Iraq since the “surge” is largely due to another factor—the fact that by then the sectarian cleansing was already accomplished by the warring Sunni and Shi’ite militias, the country divided into “cleansed” enclaves. To the extent that the US played a role in bringing about a bare modicum of “peace,” it wasn’t through a troop surge, but the buying off of reactionary Sunni sheikhs who broke with al-Qaeda in order to receive guns, money and local political power—another strategy that Obama now seeks to replicate in Afghanistan.
McChrystal’s ouster was of course sparked by his open wimp-baiting of Obama and his cabinet in an interview with Rolling Stone this week. After accepting McChrystal’s resignation, Obama met with senior advisers in the Oval Office for 45 minutes—including Vice President Joe Biden (who McChrystal specifically dissed), Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and National Security Adviser Jim Jones (who McChrystal’s staff called a “clown”). (Fox News White House View blog, June 23)
McChrystal also told Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings that Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” when meeting with military brass—an ominous sign for those perpetually paranoid about a military coup.
Petraeus was named to replace Gen. George Casey as US commander in Iraq in 2007—just as Adm. William Fallon replaced Gen. John Abizaid as chief of Central Command. This was when US fortunes in Iraq were at their lowest ebb, and the shake-up was evidence of a tilt away from the neocons, with their ultra-interventionist hubris, in the Bush administration and Pentagon. But, in the balancing of rival interests within the administration, Petraeus was the neocons’ man and Fallon in the camp of the more restrained and old-school “pragmatists.”
This became clear the following year, when Fallon publicly ruled out intervention against Iran—prompting his own ouster, and a tilt back to the neocons. Petraeus succeeded Fallon as CentCom commander, in an evident neocon counter-coup within the administration.
Last year, when Obama replaced the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, with McChrystal, a former chief of Pentagon special operations forces, this appeared as housecleaning of pro-neocon holdovers from the Bush administration. Now that Afghanistan in 2010 is starting to look like Iraq in 2007, Obama appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from the war he once opposed…