The news today is that General David Petraeus will be nominated to take over the United States Central Command, a promotion that will see the General retain responsibility for the unholy frying pan that is the Iraq War, while placing the overall fire of the entire Middle East under his purview. Naturally, if you are familiar with the vagaries that tend to govern advancement and praise in the Bush administration - in which mistakes are rewarded with promotions, medals, and public attaboys, while those who threaten to demonstrate efficacy suddenly discover the appeal of spending face time with the family - one shudders to think: "My God. What did Petraeus screw up in the past twenty-four hours to earn this reward.
In truth, however, Petraeus' promotion is the thing that corrects the unwieldy, misshapen command structure that the White House allowed to form as critical concentration drifted from fighting our al Qaida enemy in Afghanistan, to refereeing the deep-rooted, intractable sectarian conflicts in Iraq. True to form, the dispatching of an administration skeptic - in this case, former CENTCOM commander Admiral William J. Fallon - figured largely in the equation. Let us recall the words of Washington Post blogger William Arkin:
In the end, Fallon ended up as an outlier on virtually every aspect of his portfolio: Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. I argued yesterday that he was put into an impossible position -- theater commander but not really in charge, and at odds with the White House (though not necessarily with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) over Iran. Eventually, in the words of one Pentagon official, Fallon became what is called a "hall walker," with less and less responsibility and little to do.
The scuttlebutt in the Pentagon, though, is that ultimately it wasn't just his dissent or his big mouth that sealed Fallon's fate. It was also that in this hyper-hierarchical world, where the supremacy of the "commander" is taken to almost fetishistic extremes, Fallon faced an untenable job: There was an officer under his command who effectively outranked him, one who had a direct pipeline to the president, and one who in his own imperious fantasy started the ball rolling to destroy his uncooperative boss.
The man most responsible for the departure of Fallon is Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, the savior of the war and the Bush administration with the surge, the counter-insurgency genius, the Washington-savvy Princeton grad, and a pretty boy called "King David" by many. His boss in the military is Fallon, commander of the Central Command, but from day one of his assignment to Iraq, Petraeus reported directly to the White House, thus circumventing the chain of command and virtually ignoring the views of his superior officer.
So while this move appears to make all sorts of sense, especially where politics are concerned, it is hard to avoid seeing Petraeus' promotion as anything other than one more crony bred to replace a commander. This is in keeping with established Bush traditions, so it should surprise nearly nobody. But it should alarm many. One can recall how poorly this sort of skewed merit metric served the residents of New Orleans.
It should also raise a few questions. Most of the coverage of Petraeus' nomination includes today's reaction from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in which he says, in part, "Our ground forces' readiness and the battles in Afghanistan and against al Qaida in Pakistan have suffered as a result of the current costly Iraq strategy. These challenges will require fresh, independent and creative thinking and, if directed to by a new President, a commitment to implementing major changes in strategy." But there's little dot-connecting going on between Petraeus' promotion and the testimony he proffered less than a month ago. The New York Times glosses over it, telling its readers:
General Petraeus's recent appearances on Capitol Hill, where he seemed to win the respect of lawmakers even as some of them voiced frustration over the Bush administration's policies, also bolstered the impression that there will be no quick pullout from Iraq. The general said then that the situation in Iraq, while improving, was still "fragile," and he discouraged any suggestion of a rapid reduction in troop strength.
That the Congressional inquirers succeeded in treating General Petraeus with respect is not in doubt. However, it's soft-selling the story to merely note that "some...voiced frustration over the Bush administration policies." In fact, one of the key points of frustration felt by the members of the interrogating committees was just how unwilling Petraeus was to place our military effort in a larger context that included the mounting needs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of course, at the time of his testimony, Petraeus could fairly stipulate that such matters were outside his concern. But the key story today is that, going forward, Petraeus can no longer avoid answering those questions.
Furthermore, if there is a clear litmus test for Congressional approval of this promotion, it is this: During his testimony, Petraeus refused to stipulate whether or not he'd be willing to advise a new President on withdrawal from Iraq. As Spencer Ackerman pointedly noted, Petraeus very clearly hedged on that answer. The Democrats need to draw a bright and shining line on this score: concede to the Constitutionally mandated chain-of-command, or it's no dice.