My quick reactions (written yesterday but held for various reasons) to the news that COMISAF has been relieved:
1. Although it is sad to see a warrior like General McChrystal end his career this way, the silver lining is that President Obama’s move strongly buttresses civilian dominance in civil-military relations. This is appropriate for a liberal republic in which the military is the clear agent that must be subservient to civilian control and show due deference and respect to its principals/principles.
2. Replacing General McChrystal with General Petraeus is smart strategically and smart politically.
General Petraeus is extremely competent, and if you want to go with a full-blown COIN strategy a la FM 3-24, he’s the right person for the job (which is not to say that this, as practiced, is the best way to fight and win in Afghanistan).
As for the politics, Obama accomplishes a number of things. First, he shows himself to be an assertive, in-charge leader who swiftly defended the principle of civilian control in the face of McChrystal’s inadvertant (I assume) challenge. After his lame performance last week on BP, the President also gets to look presidential and show the vigor of his office at a time in which for both personal and structural reasons, he hasn’t looked so good. Second, President Obama gets to partially reframe the Afghan narrative (after just doing so last year by firing General McKiernan and putting McChrystal in charge) – but this time he puts a general in charge who is the most popular man in uniform today. This will inspire some confidence at a time in which popular dissent over the conflict has been increasing.
There is one part of this that is risky politically. If President Obama sees General Petraeus as a possible threat to run against him in 2012, then this appointment could cut either way. On the one hand, it could neutralize Petraeus by keeping him busy and off the chicken dinner circuit in the U.S. Moreover, if the war continues to go south, then it could put a dent in Petreaus’ armor. On the other hand, if Petraeus again rides to the rescue overseas, the American economy continues to flounder, and Petraeus decides he wants to ride in on horseback, Obama will have handed his opponent yet another claim for superior executive leadership.