Can Obama and Petraeus Work Together?

After General Stanley McChrystal's very public insubordination, Obama recruited his boss, General David Petraeus, to take over the Afghanistan war. Can the two men become partners?

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Peter Yang for TIME

It is amazing how quickly General Stanley McChrystal became an afterthought. It happened minutes after he was removed from command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan for idiocy above and beyond the call of duty. He became an afterthought because of the brilliant, and in some ways diabolically clever, decision that Barack Obama made in naming his successor: General David Petraeus, the dominant U.S. military figure of our time.

It was the nature of McChrystal's blunder that made the reascension of Petraeus inevitable. It was the insular, locker-room puerility of McChrystal's team, spewing in a recent Rolling Stone article — the stone-cold belief that they had all the answers; that the civilians in charge, especially those who were members of the Democratic Party, were just a bunch of feckless chin pullers — that made the incident so dangerous; it cut far too close to the bone. It raised timeless questions about civilian authority over the military in wartime and a nagging one that has shadowed American politics since Vietnam: whether Democrats are too soft, too removed from the realities of military life, to pursue an effective national-security policy.

And that is why the Petraeus appointment is at once brilliant and clever — because his prickly relationship with the President has been the symbolic heart of this problem, and now it will take center stage, in Washington and on the battlefields of Afghanistan. How it is resolved, if it is resolved, will determine the fate of Obama's presidency.

Barack Obama's problems with Petraeus began in their very first meeting, in Baghdad during the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama was joined in that session by then-Senators Joe Biden and Chuck Hagel. Petraeus laid on one of his epic PowerPoint slide presentations, which annoyed members of the group. "It was propaganda, assuming we didn't know anything," one of those present told me. "We wanted to ask questions, and when we did, Petraeus treated us badly, interrupting Obama continually, taking a very hard stand." The meeting dissolved into a heated exchange between Obama and Petraeus over Obama's stated intention to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by 2010. Ultimately, Obama's general view on the withdrawal prevailed; even Petraeus eventually came to believe Obama's policy was right, although he also believed it wouldn't have been possible without his 2007 surge in Iraq, which Obama opposed.

And now these two men are locked together for the foreseeable future, perhaps for history. In an odd way, their relationship — with its equal rations of respect and mistrust — reflects positive changes that have taken place in the Democratic Party and the U.S. military. For several decades after Vietnam, most Democratic politicians were antiwar by reflex and antimilitary by instinct. Even now, many Democrats — who come from the coasts, the big cities, the slums — are unfamiliar with a military culture rooted in the Appalachians, the South, the Plains. A moderate Democratic group called the Truman National Security Project offers a course called Military 101 to teach incoming Democratic members of Congress things like the difference between a battalion and a brigade.

Campaigning for the presidency, Obama was very much aware that a solution to his party's perceived military weaknesses was necessary after the Sept. 11 attacks. His answer had the virtue of being politically adept and substantively valid: Iraq had been the wrong war. Afghanistan was the right one, because it had been the home of al-Qaeda, and it had been neglected by George W. Bush. As President, Obama has abided by his campaign talk and has shown himself amenable to targeted but relentless use of force, in a manner that dismays his party's base. He won quiet praise from the people in uniform by retaining Bush's popular Defense Secretary Robert Gates and appointing Jim Jones, a retired Marine four-star general, as National Security Adviser. And Obama was applauded for supporting Petraeus, who was promoted from commander of the multinational forces in Iraq by Bush, in his new job as Centcom commander, a position that oversees American security interests in the most sensitive region in the world. He did so in large part because Petraeus was the exemplar of the creative new thinking that had, at least partly, transformed the U.S. military.

It isn't well remembered now, but Petraeus was an outcast midway through the Bush Administration. Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's wildly incompetent Defense Secretary, didn't like him; neither did many of his peers, who remained enamored of the Army they knew, a rumbling array of tanks and trucks and heavy artillery constructed to fight the Russians on the plains of Central Europe. Rumsfeld sent Petraeus out to pasture at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which among other things serves as an Army think tank. There, Petraeus and a group of military intellectuals concocted the military's counterinsurgency field manual — a strategy waiting to be implemented as everything else in Iraq failed. The irony about counterinsurgency (which carries the unfortunate, jingling acronym COIN) is that it is a theory of warfare that should be more acceptable to Democrats — and it was, to smart ones like Hillary Clinton — because it emphasized protecting local populations, providing them with services like schools and health clinics and jobs. When Bush turned to Petraeus and COIN was implemented in Baghdad in 2007, it looked an awful lot like community policing and social services on the South Side of Chicago. And it worked.

But it was not the only thing that worked in Iraq. Petraeus' decision to purchase the Sunni tribes in Anwar province — the Bush Administration had considered tribes "part of the past" until then — undermined the insurgency and separated the professional, al-Qaeda terrorists from the indigenous population. Most important was the untold story of the spectacular success that the special-operations forces led by McChrystal suddenly began to have in rooting out the bad guys (this was, in large part, attributable to the resources President Bush devoted to cultivating human intelligence assets). The success in Iraq was attributable to what the military calls full-spectrum warfare, the use of all the tools in its kit, but it was COIN that emerged as the headliner — an oversimplification that has had dire ramifications in Afghanistan.

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