WASHINGTON -- It is encouraging that President Obama, at least on foreign policy matters, still has the ability to surprise and impress.
The only real objection to the sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal following his spectacular collapse of judgment was the delicate nature of the moment in Afghanistan itself. The Afghan surge is just getting up to strength. Large exertions are ahead. A disruptive command change, at this point, would have left Obama open to the charge that his offended pride was more important than ongoing military operations.
There was only one choice that could have vindicated presidential authority over the military while ensuring the continuity of operations in Afghanistan -- and Obama made it. Gen. David Petraeus is the intellectual architect of modern counterinsurgency strategy. He is revered by American troops and trusted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Most urgently, Petraeus knows how to show deference to civilian control of the military without abandoning his own military views.
By agreeing to serve where the need is greatest, Petraeus assumes a reputational risk. But his appointment must also involve a pleasing sense of vindication. Just three years ago, a trio of Democratic senators named Clinton, Biden and Obama gave Petraeus a hostile reception on Capitol Hill. Petraeus' report on improved conditions in Iraq, said Sen. Hillary Clinton, requires "a willing suspension of disbelief." "We should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home," argued Sen. Joe Biden. Progress in Iraq, said Sen. Barack Obama, is "considered success, and it's not."
It is now officially impossible for Democrats to downplay the dramatic, historic achievements of the Iraq surge, having turned to its author in their own time of need.
By accepting Gen. McChrystal's resignation, Obama aims at "unity of effort" across his national security team. But the cause of disunity was not McChrystal and his staff alone.