06.29.10

A Turning Point in the War

General Petraeus’ hearings made Obama a political hostage to his new Afghan commander—but also greatly improved U.S. chances of winning.

In case anyone, anywhere still has any doubt of any kind, David Petraeus has shown today that he is not Stanley McChrystal. In the confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday—pursuant to his appointment by President Obama to the post of U.S. commander in Afghanistan—Gen. Petraeus showed all the nuance, circumspection, and control over the "over-share" button that Gen. McChrystal and his aides failed so spectacularly to display in their (dopey) dealings with (ropey) Rolling Stone.

Petraeus will be a massive political asset to President Obama, allowing him, without losing too much face, to drag back from his rash July 2011 deadline for withdrawal.

In his opening statement, Petraeus did not shirk the one question—in fact, perhaps, the only question—that the assembled senators, the American public, and America's enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan were truly interested in hearing about: Would the United States stick hard and fast to the date for withdrawal from Afghanistan announced by President Obama, to wit, July 2011? To this question, Gen. Petraeus said the following, and said so in a manner that, while not completely transparent, was translucent enough to anyone in the strategy business, and as clear in its message as his subordinate position can allow him to be: “As the president has stated, July 2011 is the point at which we will begin a transition phase in which the Afghan government will take more and more responsibility for its own security. As the president has also indicated, July 2011 is not a date when we will be rapidly withdrawing our forces and switching off the lights and closing the door behind us.” In other words: July 2011 is the embryonic beginning of the end, but we will not state categorically when the end will come, and in what form.

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More Daily Beast contributors on the Petreaus hearings.

Peter Galbraith: Petraeus’ First Big Problem
Later, as senators questioned him repeatedly on the deadline, Gen. Petraeus stuck calmly, yet adamantly, to his position that July 2011 would be the point at which "a responsible drawdown begins," but one whose "pace [would] be determined by conditions."

Showing his diplomatic finesse, Gen. Petraus went on, also, to bat for Vice President Biden, who is, in terms of his verbal incontinence at least, the "Stan McChrystal of the Obama Administration." A testy Lindsey Graham had asked the general to comment on these words ascribed to Biden in a book by Jonathan Alter: "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out [of Afghanistan], bet on it." Gen. Petraeus not only said that Biden had offered him (Petraeus) his "100 percent" support, but also that Robert Gates, the defense secretary, had never heard Biden say those words. When a general publicly quotes a defense secretary saying, in effect, that a vice president has been misquoted, one can be certain that the vice president in question will acknowledge a major political debt to said general. Expect Biden, henceforward, to be as near to silent on the question of Afghanistan as it is possible for a vice president to be. The two men are dining together Tuesday night, and I can see the general say to Biden: "Promise me, Mr. Vice President, that you won't say anything on Afghanistan before running it by me first." One trusts that President Obama, too, will tell his No. 2 to be more circumspect. (How do you say "zip it" in Pashto?)

The hearings are making clear that Petraeus, in addition to being the right man for the Afghanistan job, will also be a massive political asset to President Obama, allowing him, without losing too much face, to drag back from his rash July 2011 deadline for withdrawal. Petraeus will give him cover for any other reassessment of plans. The White House also hopes that the hearings will generate confidence that the president knows what he's doing in the Afghanistan war. (And in that sense, he is very lucky that the McChrystal episode occurred!)

Conservative senators (and the media) will continue to probe the real nature of the July 2011 timetable. Nothing Gen. Petraeus has said so far has explained why the president declared a withdrawal date even as the U.S. is conducting a surge in Afghanistan—causing President Hamid Karzai, understandably, to start to make deals and hedge bets in preparation for the day that the Americans leave. But much of what Petraeus has said so far should reassure Karzai that he has less to fear from July 2011 than he has so far assumed. That "Petraeus Effect" will be a powerful factor. As everyone knows, Petraeus would be on an impossible mission if he had to achieve success by the ostensible deadline; the fact that he has embarked on the mission at all, and has stressed that withdrawal will be shaped not by dogma but by conditions on the ground, should set the Taliban back on their heels, too. One wonders how the general's line—"If you get your teeth into the jugular of the enemy, you don't let go"—went down in Quetta, and in the Taliban sanctuaries on the AfPak border.

Charles Hill, a professor at Yale and a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, tells me that "these Petraeus hearings are the most consequential single moment in this war, just as Bush's January 10, 2007 speech on the Iraq surge was for that war." Hill, the author of " Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order," adds: "Underneath it all, liberals must fear that by naming Petraeus to this job, Obama has made himself hostage to Petraeus, who can succeed and be a hero, or fail and blame Obama."

Obama, for his part, has a third calculus: Petraeus can succeed, and make Obama look like the statesman who won us the war. For on the evidence of the hearings, Petraeus is a man who not only has his commander-in-chief's measure, but also his confidence. And in this unlikely alliance of floundering president and professional soldier lies America's best hope, for now, of winning the war.

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.)