The Magazine

The Petraeus Promotion

Good for Iraq, good for the Middle East...and good for McCain.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By JEFFREY BELL
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The change at Central Command should also prove far from reassuring to Iran. At first glance President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guard will no doubt welcome Petraeus's departure from Iraq before he has a chance to finish off their Sadrist clients as he did the Sunni jihadists to the north. But they are aware that General Odierno will be no walk in the park. And the transition from the previous head of Central Command--the buffoonish, publicity-hungry Admiral William "Fox" Fallon, with his semi-public vows to let Bush invade Iran only over his dead body--to General Petraeus, the one man Fallon publicly and privately disdained nearly as much as he did his commander in chief, is likely to be more than a little disconcerting to Tehran.

Iran and its drive to acquire nuclear weapons is the central challenge of American foreign policy, whoever becomes the next president. But the days, no doubt highly satisfying to Tehran, when Central Command saw its mission as threatening to sabotage any conceivable presidential coercion of Iran will most decidedly be over. And all this is without calculating the reaction of Ahmadinejad, the Revolutionary Guard, and Ayatollah Khamenei to the possibility of Petraeus-inflicted woe on the jihadists in Afghanistan, to Iran's east, comparable to that recently experienced in Iraq, to their west.

How can Petraeus's promotion to CENTCOM, which may take another four months, matter all that much when the Bush administration itself will then have only four months or so to go? The answer is that this nomination is potentially transformative of 2008 politics as well as the course of the global war.

It's true that George W. Bush will likely be back in Crawford before Petraeus's appointment can have borne much military fruit. But on what basis could the Democrats oppose the Petraeus nomination, or (should one of them be elected president) sack him on January 20, 2009? It is they, after all, who say that Iraq is a diversion from the real action, which is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Will the general who (as even most of them concede) greatly improved the situation in Iraq, the war that was a Bush blunder and therefore unwinnable, not be allowed to pursue the "real" war in Afghanistan, which all of them support?

For John McCain, on the other hand, no adjustment or departure will be required. He vocally supported the appointment of Petraeus to the Iraq command and endorsed Petraeus's recommendation of the troop surge in Iraq, after all, when virtually no one in Congress, Republican or Democrat, was willing to speak above a whisper in support of President Bush's decision to do so. Indeed, McCain advocated a troop surge in Iraq, and the appointment of someone like Petraeus to execute it, long before Bush did.

Assuming Petraeus is confirmed, McCain in his fall campaign will undoubtedly speak in favor of keeping the most gifted American general of the past half-century on duty until the whole job is done--with Iraq as well as Afghanistan pacified, Osama bin Laden dispatched, and Iran prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. If the Democrats have a different thought, they would then have to say what parts of that package they oppose and what general and what military plan they have in mind to finish the job, however they define it. Good luck.

Jeffrey Bell is a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he is writing a book on American social conservatism to be published by Encounter Books in 2009.