THE BLOG
09/26/2010 06:45 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The McClellan Flip

The popular Union General George McClellan, who as the Democratic candidate promised to end the Civil War by negotiating with the Confederacy, lost to Abraham Lincoln in 1864 because of the Union's military successes in the field. Lincoln wanted to persist in fighting to total victory. The presidential election of 2012 may see a reversal of roles: a popular general could make a campaign issue of the winning the Afghan War, while an apparently timid President grapples with his promise to begin drawing down the troops by August 2011.

General David Petraeus, through his own self promotion and a meager field of viable candidates, has been touted by certain Republican interests as a potential candidate for president in 2012. President Obama may feel he scotched that possibly by demoting Petraeus to commander of the Afghan War. "Obama's War" has become "Petraeus and Obama's War." The President must be gloating over what he thinks is a deft political move.

However, he shouldn't gloat too much. In fact, he may have sowed the seeds of his own destruction. Obama should be parsing Petraeus' recent media-blitz statements very carefully. The General is raising doubts about the efficacy of a draw down next August, a position the President is politically committed to. The General is also touting modest progress in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Making the draw down an issue in 2011 is an ideal opportunity for Petraeus to dislodge himself from owning the Afghan War and at the same time to thrust himself into the fray as a Republican Party candidate.

Petraeus could contend that a draw down in 2011 is premature and jeopardizes victory. He could then resign in protest over Obama's policy, appearing to courageously taking the high ground. He would then argue in the campaign that we can win in Afghanistan if only we had a real Commander-and-Chief that had the experience, patience and courage to persevere.

The image of America turning tail and retreating from Afghanistan like the Russians did is more humiliation than the American public can take. The campaign slogan "we can win" should play well with the electorate though they are disenchanted with the war. It will appeal to American triumphalism. Senator John McCain and a good many influential Republicans still feel we could have won in Vietnam if only we had persisted. Their support of Petraeus will be an attempt to reverse their distorted view of history.

This scenario is so logical for an ambitious politician like Petraeus that it's hard to think he will pass it up. The economy will still be in the doldrums while Obama will suffer the ignominy of appearing to be a feckless military leader. The military industrial complex that supported Obama in 08 will readily desert him for a popular military leader on a white horse who is prepared to fight to win and thereby vindicate the nation's honor, something very appealing to America's militarized culture.

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