President Bush's decision to elevate General David Petraeus to lead the Central Command is not only an act of courage, it may prove to be transformative in the global war on terror, and even in the 2008 election. God has apparently seen fit to give the U.S. Army a great general in this time of need, a simple fact which President Bush has had the sense to recognize and act on. Bush's action comes not a moment too soon, and given Petraeus's ability, perhaps not too late either.
Why do I rank Petraeus so high? When it comes to military strategy, I defer to others (including several who write for this magazine) to put his generalship in its larger historical context. To all but the willful and the blind, though, the swiftness of the turnaround in Iraq is indisputable. And to anyone who has had even a worm's eye view of the U.S. Army and its bureaucratic tendencies, it is not just indisputable but astounding.
I was a lowly 24-year-old draftee, a specialist fourth class, stationed with an American advisory team to a South Vietnamese infantry division in the Mekong Delta when the Tet offensive happened in February 1968. As is now well known, American and South Vietnamese units fought well, and the enemy was dealt a devastating blow in military terms. But the U.S. Army had a commanding general, William Westmoreland, who had no clue what had happened.
We then had about 540,000 soldiers in South Vietnam. Westmoreland flew to Washington and demanded that President Johnson send an additional 206,000. By doing so, he terminated his own prospects of success in Vietnam and also those of Johnson, who within a month announced his decision not to seek reelection. West-moreland's visible panic dealt a devastating blow to home-front support for the war at a moment when the enemy had just been badly depleted on the battlefield. This is what a reactive, bureaucratic commander is capable of accomplishing in a single month.
Petraeus is the polar opposite of Westmoreland, and for that matter the generals who preceded him in command of our forces in Iraq. From the moment he arrived, greater risk and greater accountability were demanded of our troops, which they gladly gave because they sensed he had a plan and knew exactly what he was doing.
As originally reported in the press, the emphasis on living in the neighborhoods and mingling with Iraqis had a touchy-feely overtone, making even some hawks wonder if Petraeus was leaving our soldiers needlessly vulnerable. But the move to the neigh-borhoods had a predominantly military aim, which was reliable intelligence about Al Qaeda in Iraq and its fellow-travelers.
The move worked and the intelligence flowed because Petraeus was correct in sensing that the jihadists' power over the locals stemmed not from sympathy but from fear. Once the Iraqis started telling our forces where the enemy was, the jihadists saw their safe havens swiftly disappear, and Petraeus's troops became a killing machine. That is why the levels of violence in Sunni Iraq declined so swiftly. The Sadrists and other Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen are well aware of the fate of the Sunni jihadists and will be deeply affected by it, whether Petraeus or his superb deputy and successor, General Raymond Odierno, is in command when the final crunch comes.
When Petraeus gains operational control over the war in Afghanistan, something similar will happen to the Taliban. I say this not because I believe the military challenge of the Taliban in Afghanistan is identical to the challenge of Al Qaeda in Iraq. I say this because Petraeus is a great general and therefore will know how much he needs to adapt (or for all I know reverse) the approach that worked for him in Iraq. If the Taliban have any doubt of this, they will learn within months or perhaps even weeks of his arrival in Tampa that they are dealing with an American commander who knows how to kill them.
When he was a regional commander in an earlier phase of the Iraq war, Petraeus was nicknamed King David for his ability to work out mutually beneficial arrangements with local sheikhs and tribal leaders. It's a good bet that Petraeus, who is a sophisticated political general with skills in the same ballpark as those of George Marshall or Dwight Eisenhower, will channel these skills in the form of carrots and sticks toward tribal warlords in Pakistan's northwest provinces. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and their mainly Arab associates should never be underestimated, but they will learn that their physical safety has suddenly become considerably more in doubt than when their main worry was General Musharraf and the deeply ambivalent military-intelligence complex based in Islamabad.
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.