The Leadership Shuffle: Four More Years?
The April 24, 2008 announcement of a change of leadership within U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) came at a curious time, both politically and militarily. Politically, the nomination of General David Petraeus as the new CENTCOM commander came hard on the heels of his bruising encounters with the Congress earlier in the month that revealed significant differences of opinion about the war between the general and leading Democrats, notably presidential contenders Obama and Clinton. Militarily, it came equally hard on the heels of inter-Shiite fighting around Basra, reported in an earlier entry. What’s going on here?
The bare bones are clear. Admiral William Fallon, who allowed himself to be rransferred from command of the Pacific Command (PACCOM) in 2007 to head CENTCOM, was pushed out the door about a year into his three-year tour, apparently because the “Fox” (his fighter-pilot nickname) came at odds with the White House over Iran (he, quite reasonably, opposed ratcheting up the rhetoric, since we could not back up threats); the Bush administration, of course, is famous for its intolerance of internal dissent. Push came to shove, and Fallon will be gone. That is certainly a shame.
With Fallon heading out the door, reenter Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Ray Ordieno. The paint was hardly dry on his door plate in the Pentagon as Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, and he is on his way back to Baghdad to replace his former boss as commander of U.S. (officialy coalition) forces in Iraq. The mantle of overall military coordination of U.S. military coordination in the Middle East now passes to Petraeus.
Two questions arise. The first is why the change at this point, six months before the November election. Fallon’s recognition he had displeased the powers that be must have entered in here, but presumably he could have been convinced to stay through the election–possibly with a sock stuffed down his throat to prevent further heterodoxy on his part. Since the CENTCOM leadership position is traditionally a three-year posting, Petraeus, assuming he is confirmed, will be in place for the first two-and-a-half years of a new administration. Since he is a known supporter of the present course, he thus serves as a source of continuity or as a millstone for the next president, depending on who it is and what he/she wants to do about Iraq. The effect is to lock in a powerful source of inertial drag against quick disengagement, that much is for sure.
The second question is why Petraeus agreed to this timing. There are three possibilities. He may have done so because he is a “good soldier” who, when his commander calls, salutes briskly and marches on in the Army tradition. He may have done so because he is convinced that the current course is the proper one and that his elevation will make it harder to change away from the right policy which, from his new position, from which he will be better able to direct that course. Or, it may all be political, with Petraeus and McCain (who has, hyperbolically, called Petraeus “one of the greatest generals in American history”). Or, of course, it could have been all of the above. Could the general, his strong denials notwithstanding, be looking at 2012?
The confirmation process for Petraeus and Ordieno, likely in the early summer, will be ugly. Democrats are in a dilemma: do they oppose what most Americans believe is a genuine war hero? Or do they support him and thus indirectly support a continuation of a war to which they are opposed. It is a lose-lose proposition, the prospect of which must warm the cockles of Karl Rove’s heart. Doubtless Obama and Clinton (and other Democrats) will grill Petraeus on his willingness to support an altered policy, but will that be too subtle if they vote for confirmation in the end?
This whole episode smells familiarly like another ploy to ensure that American disengagement from Iraq is as difficult as possible. As such, it is another refrain of the same theme raised in the most recent posting. Do we really want four more years in Iraq? If not, what do we think about Petraeus and Ordieno allowing themselves to be willing pawns in the political drama of ending or continuing the war?