GWEN IFILL: When President Obama stepped into the Rose Garden today, he faced more than a simple personnel decision.
Ray Suarez handles that.
RAY SUAREZ: A wartime general’s relationship with his top generals can be as much a political issue as a military matter.
For more on this, we go to Brett McGurk, a former National Security Council official in the Bush and Obama administrations, where he focused on Iraq and Afghanistan policy. He’s now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And Michael Desch, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, he’s the author of “Civilian Control of the Military: The Changing Security Environment.”
Brett McGurk, it was done swiftly and decisively by the president, with widespread support from both Democrats and Republicans, but does the removal of Stanley McChrystal also create an occasion for opening a political debate over the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan?
BRETT MCGURK, Council on Foreign Relations: I — it had that potential. This morning at 9:00 or 10:00, it had that potential.
And following up from the other panel, which had it very well analyzed, I think the president put a real mark. He took ownership again of this policy. He said the policy’s not changing. And by putting Dave Petraeus in command, that sends a resounding message throughout the military chain of command, throughout the civilian ranks, to our Afghan partners and to the Pakistanis.
So, again, the president today, really an extraordinary day, but, again, it’s, what will happen on day two? Those relationships are critical. And, in Iraq, some things we changed when the surge started going, you know, President Bush met with his national security team, with General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker every Monday morning.
And I was in those meetings. They were small meetings, but it was a time to say, OK, Dave Petraeus, Ambassador, Madam Secretary, Secretary of Defense, Chairman, what do you see this week? What’s going to happen this week? What are you seeing in the theater?
And it kind of diminished surprises. It was very effective to keep everything going on an even keel, and it takes a lot of time, presidential time. And it’s something we will have to see if they make changes going forward on that point.
Again, it’s presidential leadership week to week, because there are so many surprises in these sorts of operations, given the complexities. And I think that can make a real difference.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Desch, it is it significant that this wasn’t a conflict over policy, that the two men, publicly and privately, agreed on the policy?
MICHAEL DESCH, professor of political science, University of Notre Dame: Well, that’s the irony.
And the fact that General McChrystal’s replacement is General Petraeus means there will be almost no change in policy. And, of course, the problem is, if the original counterinsurgency strategy wasn’t working before, if you bring in a smoother version of General McChrystal in General Petraeus, but someone who is committed to the same basic policy, it’s not clear that the underlying problems that I think have caused this disarray in the Obama administration’s national security team are going to go away.
The problem is, as the old saying goes, that failure is an orphan; success has many fathers. And Afghanistan now is a failure. And that’s causing a lot of friction within the national security team.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, as we saw today, the commander of U.S. forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan serves at the pleasure of the president. But doesn’t that person also have many other constituencies? Is there repair work that now has to be done with NATO, with the countries that were derisively talked of in the “Rolling Stone” article?
MICHAEL DESCH: Well, you bet. You know, the NATO coalition is fraying, and the intemperate remarks about some of our NATO partners that were attributed to General McChrystal’s staff certainly aren’t helpful.
The other question is, the one person in the Af-Pak account that had a decent relationship with President Karzai was, in fact, General McChrystal. And it will be interesting to see what approach General Petraeus takes to dealing with Karzai.
And one could argue that Karzai’s been more of a problem than the solution. And so it seems to me that what we ought to hope for is not a continuation or better implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy, but, rather, some fundamental changes. And I think one of them has to do with our relationship with the Karzai government.
RAY SUAREZ: Brett McGurk, you just heard Professor Desch. Can things happen quickly? You were on the inside in both this and the last administration, where there very high-profile personnel changes. But changing one person’s portfolio sometimes means months of adjustment after that, doesn’t it?
BRETT MCGURK: Again, potentially, and that was a potential here.
First, can things happen quickly? The answer is a resounding no. Nothing is going to happen quickly. And some weeks will go well. Some weeks will go poorly. And the one thing Dave Petraeus said when he testified last week was that it’s a bit of a roller- coaster ride, and you want to keep things more or less on an upward trajectory, but this is going to take time.
And this is the toughest, toughest period. We’re still getting our forces in place. We’re starting to go into areas that were uncontested. Fighting is increasing. Our casualties are up. It’s the middle of the fighting season. This is toughest period. And it takes the president to say, this is my strategy. We’re going forward.
And that’s exactly what he did today, which was a good thing. On the personnel and the continuity, there’s eerie similarities here to an unfortunate magazine profile with Admiral Fox Fallon, who was the CENTCOM commander, in the spring of 2008, in which the perception created in that article was that he was the only thing holding back war with Iran, which, of course, wasn’t true. But that was the perception created.
He resigned. And that was an unfortunate episode. But the White House and Secretary Gates used that episode to put General Petraeus in charge of Central Command and put General Odierno in charge of our command in Iraq, which has served the nation very well.
So, out of these types of episodes can come some — some pos — excuse me — some positives. And I think the president again today said, this strategy is mine. We’re going forward. Dave Petraeus is taking charge of it.
I don’t think people expected to hear that today. And it’s quite a moment. And I think we will see what happens in the weeks ahead, but I think presidential ownership really matters. The president did a great thing today. And we have to watch it going forward.
But saying that my team has to come together was critical. But the only person who can make the whole team come together is the president, because he’s the only one that everybody answers to.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, you heard Brett McGurk talk about other high-profile dismissals, but is that a moment that’s tougher for Democrats because of there’s such a constant rumble about their more-difficult relations with the military?
MICHAEL DESCH: Well, it is.
Part of it is the legacy of Vietnam, where the Democratic Party had the — you know, basically was tarred with the label of being the party of defeat. And then, in recent years, an issue that’s arisen is that we have had fewer and fewer of our high-level political leaders with real military experience.
And Barack Obama is not only a Democrat, but a Democrat that’s never served in uniform. So, you can imagine the thoughts that were going through his head, beyond just the question of whether McChrystal had stepped too far over the line and whether changing horses in midstream in Afghanistan would be a problem for the strategy.
But there’s the larger perception in Obama’s case — and, you know, I think it’s reinforced by the concern about his leadership in the Gulf oil spill — that this could be a really tough decision and one that there was a great burden on him to make the right way.
RAY SUAREZ: And do you agree with Brett McGurk that this is also maybe an opportunity?
MICHAEL DESCH: Well, I wish it were an opportunity, but, again, what’s happening is, paradoxically, that it wasn’t really a debate about policy.
You know, the president has basically, after the Afghan strategy review of last fall, gave, you know, General McChrystal and General Petraeus almost everything they wanted.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Desch, Brett McGurk, gentlemen, thank you both.
BRETT MCGURK: Thank you.