>It's up to David Petraeus now. One can argue the merits and the import of a civilian-led military (and find no disagreement here). But if General Petraeus had collapsed during that Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month and not gotten back up, the war would be over.
When he ascended to command in Iraq, with a name torn from ancient Rome and a plan pulled from the spirit of Frederick the Great (misattributed, "L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!"), he brought order to chaos. Not just on the battlefield, but in living rooms, around water coolers, and on military bases the world over. David Petraeus, with his Ph.D from Princeton and a Ranger tab on his shoulder, assuaged fears that the combat zone was a partisan playground and the United States still shackled to Vietnam. Here was a man who'd taken a bullet, been awarded Valor medals, and doesn't vote so as not to get dragged into the undertow of Washington politics.
Today, it helps that Petraeus did the impossible. It helps that his plan worked. It helps that only yesterday, no less than Vice President Joe "Let's partition Iraq and get out of there" Biden now considered Iraq to be a great achievement of the Obama administration. But there's the rub. When George W. Bush backed General Petraeus and his counterinsurgency strategy, the president had by then lost much credibility as commander in chief. To the public at large, Iraq was a "civil war" or a "war for oil" or "unfinished family business" or a "distraction from Afghanistan" or all of these things. General Petraeus, therefore, was presented as more than four stars and a set of Airborne wings. He became the new face of the war, superseding even the president.
Eighteen months after taking office, President Obama can hardly claim moral authority on military affairs, first tacking left as the anti-war candidate, now following through with the Bush-Petraeus plan to the letter. After pinning a fourth star on Bush general and black-ops mastermind Stanley McChrystal, the president wasted precious months deciding whether to commit troops requested by the general, and then declared a politically calculated withdrawal date of July 2011. Polls show overwhelming disapproval of President Obama's handling of the war, and sacking General McChrystal one year into his command does little to mollify the uneasy public.
The choice of sending General Petraeus once more into the breach is worthy of praise, but fraught with questions. Leaving CENTCOM to take charge of the ground war in Afghanistan is a demotion to General Petraeus. The circumstances surrounding the move are still clouded -- was he ordered there, or did he request it? Did he accept the job out of loyalty to his friend Stanley McChrystal, or simply out of a sense of duty?
To be clear, Petraeus has a lot to lose. Presently, he is sainted, destined for a glorious profile in military lore, with a biography and set of accomplishments that rival any American general since George Washington. Taking charge of a desperate war in a Mad Max wasteland is the mark of supreme confidence, supreme foolishness, or supreme misfortune.