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06.23.10

Obama’s 2012 Power Play

Obama’s decision to replace Gen. McChrystal with Iraq war hero David Petraeus was more than just a way to keep the Afghan battle on course. Tunku Varadarajan on the president’s masterstroke.

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.

Read our full coverage of McChrystal's Rolling Stone interview fallout. 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."

To those tempted to argue that Obama has now elevated Petraeus to Eisenhower-like status, I’d point out that Eisenhower never ran for office against a president who raised him up to the military apex. I have met Petraeus, and had the chance to talk to him in an informal way, and I would be flabbergasted if he would now contemplate a political run against a man who has entrusted him with America’s most sensitive theater of war. Besides, the job Petraeus is taking would normally be a two-year stint.

To those tempted to argue that Obama has now elevated Petraeus to Eisenhower-like status, I’d point out that Eisenhower never ran for office against a president who raised him up to the military apex.

So Obama has reason to be delighted with himself right now: He has sacked a recalcitrant big-mouth; he has entrusted said big-mouth’s job to a certified hero and military star; and he’s taken that star out of contention for 2012, making his own re-election that much more likely, given the headless turkey that is currently the GOP.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)