NPR logo

Week In News: Petraeus Takes Over In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Week In News: Petraeus Takes Over In Afghanistan


Week In News: Petraeus Takes Over In Afghanistan

Week In News: Petraeus Takes Over In Afghanistan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

The newly appointed commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, addressed troops in Kabul on Saturday. Host Guy Raz speaks with James Fallows of The Atlantic about how replacing Gen. Stanley McChrystal with Petraeus may have backed President Obama into a political corner.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, International Security Assistance Force; Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan): Having just flown in from NATO headquarters, I'm reminded that this is an effort in which we must achieve unity of effort and common purpose.

RAZ: General David Petraeus, the newly confirmed U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, addressing troops today in Kabul. One of the stories James Fallows of The Atlantic is following. He joins us most Saturdays.

Greetings, Jim.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (News Analyst, The Atlantic): Greetings, Guy. Nice to talk to you.

RAZ: Jim, let's start with Afghanistan. You posted an intriguing idea on your blog that suggests that by losing Stanley McChrystal as his top commander in Afghanistan, President Obama may actually find himself in a more difficult position, at least politically.

Mr. FALLOWS: The argument here, based on some policy insider I interviewed actually yesterday, was that while General McChrystal was the face of the offensive in Afghanistan and the sort of re-commitment of troops there, he was also the face of the bargain that Barack Obama had made when he announced the escalation last winter, which was we're going to try this for a year and we'll see if it works or if it doesn't.

And so that if, when the reassessment point came this coming December, it seemed the plan was not working, then General McChrystal was entirely committed in all ways to saying, okay, we've tried this and it hasn't worked.

And while the policy doesn't necessarily change with a different general, the history that David Petraeus brings with him is different, that he is, for all practical purposes, unremovable from this job. And so, somehow in personality terms, the bargain is less enforceable, if you will, with David Petraeus now in control.

RAZ: In other words, if the strategy doesn't work, President Obama is not guaranteed a commander who would back the idea of abandoning it.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think we have an in theory versus in reality issue here. That in theory, of course, the commander-in-chief always makes the policy, et cetera. As a correlation of forces matter, General Petraeus can sort of exude the fact that he's taking over a new - you know, in the middle of this year, he deserves a new chance there, so it may be harder to wrap it up than it might have been under General McChrystal.

RAZ: Jim, moving on to another story that caught my eye this week. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, was profiled in the New York Times this week. He's now saying that Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting the Republican nomination today.

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. And I think that's almost inarguable. Political parties do, in different cycles in their history, go through phases of gunning more to the middle and more to their respective extremes. I think there's just no arguing the fact the Republican Party is in one of this going towards the extreme periods right now.

And Ronald Reagan, who was relatively big tent, although clearly a conservative on social issues where he didn't really push on the abortion front, on immigration where he approved a bill that have, you know, widespread amnesty for a lot of illegal immigrants and some other factors. He would have been seen as sort of too wishy-washy in a way to pass muster these days.

RAZ: And we'll be talking actually about that issue, Ronald Reagan and immigration, on the program tomorrow. This is something that happened to the Democrats, too, though, Jim.

Mr. FALLOWS: Sure. In the 1970s and the early '80s, I think many people observed the Democrats were trying to figure out, were they a party driven by interest groups, could they appeal to the mainstream of America. And much of what Bill Clinton's rise was about was saying, yes, we have to reconfigure ourselves and find ways to reconnect with the American mainstream. That's the process, I think, the Republicans will be going through for some time to come.

RAZ: Jim, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch has said he will oppose the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Not too long ago, these nominees, you know, would receive pretty sizable bipartisan majority. I mean, Scalia was confirmed 90-0, Ginsburg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg got 93 votes. But I wonder whether, you know, that kind of consensus is over when it comes to high court nominees.

Mr. FALLOWS: I think as I've looked back through some of these votes, there is a kind of ebb and flow here. For example, the late chief justice William Rehnquist, when he was up for confirmation, it was only a 65-33 majority for him. And Clarence Thomas only got through in a 52-48 vote, which these days, in the days of the 60-vote filibuster we would count as failure.

But I think that we're seeing, again, a phase of more and more extremity on these nominations and everything else. I think this is an ongoing theme we'll be discussing for months to come, which is the mismatch between the complex policy issues of our time, which involve a lot of knots and gray issues and all the rest, and the increasingly black and white politics of both parties.

RAZ: That's James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his blog at

Jim, thanks and happy Fourth of July to you.

Mr. FALLOWS: Same to you, Guy.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.