Thursday, June 24, 2010

From McChrystal to Petraeus: A choice for security at an unpleasant crossroads

Guest post by Wade C. Barnes 

Wade Barnes is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a veteran naval officer, and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. He is a graduate student at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. This is his first guest post at The Reaction.

The circumstances that culminated in the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal as Commander of U.S. and NATO Coalition Forces in Afghanistan should rightfully disappoint every citizen of the United States. Though this incident should not discolor the general's 34 years of faithful service, we as a nation deserve better than flag officers who speak out publicly against their superiors.

As a former military officer, I believe that President Obama's decision to accept General McChrystal's resignation was inevitable given the tone and public nature of his gaffe. The president's subsequent selection of General David Petraeus as General McChrystal's successor, however, represents a strategic choice that will ultimately enhance American national security.

Sometimes leadership means choosing the right person for the job. By appointing General Petraeus to lead coalition forces in Afghanistan, President Obama selected the U.S. military officer most skilled in the nuances of modern warfare. An expert in counterinsurgency – he literally helped write the manual – General Petraeus will arrive in Afghanistan at an inflection point.

Following a difficult campaign in Marja, in the midst of preparations to apply pressure on Kandahar, and with the administration's July 2011 phased withdrawal deadline fast approaching, General Petraeus faces a tough road to hoe. Nevertheless, as General McChrystal's direct superior and having recently salvaged the U.S. war effort in Iraq, there is no soldier, sailor, airman, or marine better equipped to deliver the conditions necessary for Afghans to establish functional self-governance.

Leadership by example is the best kind of leadership. It is too easy to accuse the White House of blunting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan by relieving General McChrystal of command. This only tells half of the story. When junior officers or enlisted service members undermine the authority of their senior chain of command, this is termed "insubordination" and is often addressed with non-judicial punishment. When generals and admirals snipe at the civilian chain of command, however, it grinds at the very core of our national security architecture.

President Obama demonstrated leadership by example when he said, "I welcome debate... but I won't tolerate division." After all, valuing debate over division is the lubricant that facilitated our military's transition from a reactionary peacetime service on September 10, 2001 to a dynamic fighting force capable of prosecuting pitched battles and counterinsurgency alike in pursuit of U.S. national security interests.

America suffers when tensions such as these emerge from the shadows. In 1951, General Douglas MacArthur reminded our country that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away." There is no joy in watching General McChrystal walk down this road, only somber reflection on the otherwise meteoric career of a decorated warrior and a venerable member of the Army's post-Powell New Guard.

President Obama showed wisdom by selecting a devoutly apolitical military leader who packs as much diplomacy under his belt as he does strategy and tactics. If America is to emerge stronger and safer from the Afghan conflict, we must reject the pall of Afghan defeat that shattered Soviet vitality in 1989. Already energized by a comprehensive strategy and sufficient resourcing under the Obama administration, the appointment of General Petraeus to replace General McChrystal will lend terminal velocity to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. General Petraeus has the vision and experience to make that strategy a reality.

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