President Obama was very clear in his announcing his decision to sack Gen. Stanley McChrystal yesterday.
"I welcome debate, but I won't tolerate division," the president said, announcing both McChrystal's departure and his nomination of Gen. David Petraeus as his successor.
But Obama also made a point of saying that this was a shift in personnel, not policy. And that, in some ways, is a far bigger story.
Petraeus' Senate confirmation is expected to begin on Tuesday, with hearings by the Armed Services Committee. McChrystal's sin was less about policy disagreements and more about personal snipings. But it's probably fair to say that not everyone in the administration is on the same page regarding Afghan policy — Vice President Joe Biden is said to be no fan of the surge — and next week's hearings may offer a venue for that. Opponents of the war are expected to make their case, but proponents, such as Sen. John McCain, have complaints as well, mostly about a timetable for withdrawal. "The withdrawal of U.S. troops must be based on conditions at the time, not on an arbitrary date, " the Arizona senator said on Wednesday, reiterating a long-held view.
But it may prove to be a bigger opportunity for progressives, whose views have often been shunted aside by a Democratic administration.
Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, in the Huffington Post, write that McChrystal's dismissal "should focus attention on the incoherence of the Obama administration's strategy for prosecuting what is now the longest war in American history":
Even more important than McChrystal's highlighting of the weaknesses of Obama's national security and foreign policy team is his powerful implication that the president himself is not capable of articulating a clear strategy, sticking with it, and putting together a team capable of implementing it. Whether he meant to or not, General McChrystal has unveiled a stark failure of presidential leadership that puts U.S. interests in an important part of the world in serious jeopardy. And that's something that not even a new general can fix.
Similarly, Hannah Gurman, blogging at Salon, says the change of generals "changes nothing":
Surely, generals play an important role in winning and losing wars. But it is misleading to imagine that they — or any other individual — determine the outcome of a conflict whose causes stem from the underlying political and social system. ...
The political and social barriers to success in Afghanistan are even steeper [than what we faced in Vietnam]. As did McChrystal, Petraeus will face the superhuman challenge of refashioning a political system that resists change and garnering popular support for a government that cares little about the populace. ...
In the meantime, though, we can count on the 24-hour news cycle to focus on the people and personalities — to pretend for the moment that the war in Afghanistan is really just a question of command.
Andrew Sullivan, blogging in The Atlantic, is completely pessimistic, even with McChrystal gone:
This has made things far worse, that we are trapped there for ever, that Obama simply has not had the balls to get the hell out, and that the military brass - far from being brought to heel by Obama - now has the president by the balls for the war they want. That the brass is the thoughtful, Democratic-style, Petraeus version of neo-imperialism makes it actually more lethal for any chance of returning to limits in US foreign policy.
This is the entrenchment of late Bush, not the change we were promised. The Af-Pak occupation is Washington's latest war-machine, like the war on poverty, the war on drugs and the war on terror. It's a government program that cannot be stopped, cut or removed. It is now a permanent feature of the American state.
Meanwhile, on the right, blogger Moe Lane at Redstate.com is amused at how Gen. Petraeus "stopped being a would-be whipping boy" for the left — remember MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" campaign? — and "started being President Obama’s last, best hope for not mucking up the Afghanistan war."