President Obama has an unusual opportunity to reshape the American military in the coming months. defence Secretary Robert Gates is retiring. And the terms of four service chiefs are expiring, enabling the President to choose a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to replace the outgoing Admiral Mike Mullen.
Choosing a new defence Secretary is a relatively straightforward task; there are any number of superb candidates to fill Gates’ shoes. The appointment of a new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is highly political and revolves around a central question: what to do about the Commander of ISAF and US Forces Afghanistan, General David Petraeus?
The obvious answer is: promote him. General Petraeus is arguably America’s most accomplished military commander. He is certainly the most experienced in “new warfare.” He served in Iraq as head of the 101st Airborne, returned there a few years later to lead President George W. Bush’s famous “surge” and recently took on the task of turning around military operations in the Afghanistan/Pakistan theatre. No one in the military has done harder jobs. No one has done them better.
A Petraeus appointment would be hugely popular with younger officers throughout the military, who view him as a champion of a smarter, more flexible, more innovative military. One of outgoing Secretary Gates’ key concerns is that these officers will be frustrated (and quit) if the military stagnates in the backwater of bureaucratic management. Slate‘s Fred Kaplan addressed this point in a recent column:
(Gates’) still bigger fear is that, as the restoration sets in, the most creative and capable junior officers will leave the military out of frustration and boredom. These officers have led men and women in multiple combat tours, charted the boldest innovations, taken the most extraordinary risks, accepted the responsibilities and rewards. Yet when they’re rotated into a staff job, often in the prime of their professional lives, they find themselves trapped in a cubicle, reformatting PowerPoint slides and preparing quarterly readiness reports. “The consequences of this terrify me,” Gates said in his West Point speech.
The surest way to insure that these officers don’t leave is to make Gen Petraeus Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. This being Washington politics, such an appointment seems unlikely.
The fact is that the political team around President Obama (and President Obama himself) don’t look at Petraeus as a future Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They seem him as a future Republican presidential candidate. Indeed, they seem him as someone who might run (at the last minute) next year and be the GOP’s 2012 nominee. (Like many people, the Obama political team is decidedly unimpressed by the current field of GOP contenders). So the last thing they want to do is build him up. They want to bury him.
That was the whole point of putting him in charge of Afghanistan. He was the best candidate for the job, no doubt. But having him fill the job gave him the world’s most thankless task in the world’s most thankless country. If ever there was a way to bury someone, running the show in Afghanistan was (and is) about as good as it gets.
Rewarding Gen. Petraeus for his extraordinary service in Afghanistan (and Iraq) with the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff puts him right back in the middle of things in Washington. He becomes, automatically, a major player. President Obama doesn’t like equals. He likes subordinates. So look for Petraeus to be offered the old Dwight Eisenhower slot: Supreme Allied Commander for Europe.
The weird thing about all this is that General Petraeus is a liberal, by any definition. A liberal with a huge conservative following. You might think that’s a good thing. For General Petraeus, it’s almost certainly a one way ticket to Belgium, where the Supreme Allied Command is based.
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