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Whither Petraeus?

General David Petraeus should next be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

11:00 AM, Apr 7, 2011 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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When there’s nothing better to do (and even when there is), folks in Washington gossip about the human parade passing through the world’s most powerful jobs. For years, the departure date and replacement for Defense secretary Robert Gates has been a prime source of speculative entertainment, but lately it’s all about General David Petraeus.

Petraeus

First was the word that Marine Gen. John Allen, currently number two at U.S. Central Command, would be the replacement in Afghanistan. But this week the question is, “Whither Petraeus?”

The natural course of events would make Petraeus the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replacing Adm. Mike Mullen at the end of his term in September. But the conventional wisdom is that the White House remains too spooked by Petraeus, if not by his presumed political ambitions – try as he might, Petraeus can’t convince Obama’s men that he’s not running for president – then perhaps by the aura of victory that surrounds a successful general.

Here’s where the Washington types get lost in the catnip. The White House’s “favorite” general – at least according to Bob Woodward – is Marine Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, but his private life is the source of rumor and being seen as a political favorite does Cartwright no favor in the Pentagon. So if Petraeus is too hot in the West Wing, Cartwright is too hot in the E Ring. The safe choice is said to be Adm. James Stavridis, the current NATO commander. 

But, you ask, what about Petraeus?

Recent reports say that it’s likely “King David” will become CIA director. Which would be very neat if, as even stronger rumors indicate, current chief spook Leon Panetta takes Gates’s job. Personally, I’m going with Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick.

Parlor games and snark aside, though, this is serious stuff. The American military has been hard at it in the decade since 9/11, and its reward is about to be a decade of force and budget cuts, along with the persistent conflict. The hard times are just beginning, and the job of leading the armed services as an institution will be just as challenging as leading them on the battlefield.

For President Obama to pass up the outstanding officer of this generation – and, as important, the man seen as the face of victory in Iraq and Afghanistan – would be both a profound injustice and a very unwise decision. It sends a terrible message to the troops he commands, to the Congress and to the public at large. It will also inevitably suggest to many that he fears Petraeus.

The general is a driven man, but no “man on horseback.” If he has had an o’erleaping ambition, it has been to be a great battle captain – which goal he has accomplished several times over now – not a Caesar, nor even an Ike. The likelihood of David Petraeus moving form Kabul to the campaign trail is certainly nil.

If he is not too weary – and who would not be? – the best service Petraeus can give is to institutionalize, across the U.S. armed services, the characteristics of adaptive leadership that he has embodied. Leading the 101st Airborne Division into Iraq in 2003, Petraeus famously asked journalist Rick Atkinson to “tell me how this ends?” The general’s long time in uniform ought to end in the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman’s chair.

Along with replacing Secretary Gates, choosing a new chairman – the president’s senior military adviser – will be among the most important decisions Obama will make. He needs the best advice, not his favorite advice.

Napoleon sought generals, above all, for their luck. David Petraeus is a very good, perhaps even a great general. But he’s also been lucky. Whether he likes it or not, Barack Obama is a wartime president. He should think twice before passing over his luckiest general.

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