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Does Petraeus’s successor need to be someone who can defend the war against the White House?

Does Petraeus’s successor need to be someone who can defend the war against the White House?

The Washington Post has a fascinating story about the search for the successor to General Petraeus. Greg Jaffe reports that the Obama Administration will likely bypass Petraeus’s well-regarded deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, for the also well-regarded Lt. Gen. John Allen.  

The good news is that this late in the game, there are now several battle-proven commanders to choose from. While Rodriguez may be very good — General McChrystal is said to have called him the "best commander I have ever known" — the alternative may also be very good.

Choosing the commander is one of the most important decisions President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates will make (or Gates’s successor will make — and choosing that person could even be a more important presidential decision). Obama must have confidence in whomever he chooses and so it is appropriate to pick the one he trusts the most, even if that means passing up someone who looks very strong to others.

That said, I was deeply disturbed by the rationale for the choice offered in the story. Here is how Jaffe put it:

The decision to bypass Rodriguez for the top job reflects a determination among senior Pentagon officials that the war needs a commander who can make the case for the increasingly unpopular conflict to Congress, the news media and skeptics in the White House."

That has the ring of truth to it, and that is precisely why I find it so disturbing. To be sure, making the case for an unpopular conflict to Congress and the news media is an important part of the commander’s job. This was one of General Petraeus’s strongest suits. His demonstrated capacity in this area is one of the reasons the Iraq surge turned out as well as it did.

But should it be the commander’s job to make the case for the war to his skeptical superiors in the White House? After all, he is executing their war, the war that their President (our President) said was a "necessary war." Would a story like this even make sense in other policy domains: "HHS Looking to Pick a Health Czar Who Can Persuade the White House that Obamacare is Worth the Cost?"

For that matter, shouldn’t the White House bear the largest load for making the case for Afghanistan to skeptics in Congress, the news media and, by extension, the American people? I understand that the White House cannot do it alone and that a media-savvy battlefield commander is a vital asset. By late in the Bush tenure, White House credibility with Congress, the media, and even, to a certain extent, with the American people, had so eroded that the Administration over-relied on commanders like Petraeus and General Odierno to do public outreach.  But this was after years of strenuous effort by President Bush. Petraeus may have had to fight a two-front war, combatting both insurgents in Iraq and skeptics back home.  But at least he had no doubt whatsoever that President Bush had his back.

Where has been the comparable effort from President Obama? Does Petraeus believe Obama has his back now? If Obama believes the war is important enough for him to send America’s sons and daughters (and Moms and Dads) in harms way, then it is his job, as Commander-in-Chief, to make the case for the increasingly unpopular conflict to Congress, the news media and above all to skeptics in the White House. This last constituency is the easiest one to persuade: one Oval Office meeting should do it because every single one of them serves at the pleasure of the President.  

Perhaps Jaffe has garbled the story, but I doubt it.  He is a very careful and well-sourced reporter. It is all-too-plausible that the Pentagon believes the new war commander has to have the chops to persuade Congress, the media, and the White House all on his own.

Perhaps the Pentagon believes this in error. Let’s hope so, because if Jaffe’s sources are correctly gauging the lay of the land inside the administration, we are in very deep trouble.  I do not know of very many successful military ventures where the president was as uncommitted as this president appears to be.