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D. Michael Lindsay
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D. Michael Lindsay

D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist at Rice University and the author of Surveying America’s Leadership: A Study of the White House Fellows. He is also author of the acclaimed 2007 study, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.

What matters now is Afghanistan

Q: In confronting the issue of Gen. McChrystal's apparent insubordination, did President Obama have any choice but to remove him? Going forward, what can Gen. Petraeus do to overcome this dramatic shakeup and keep his troops reassured and on mission?

Until now, it's been a rough summer for President Obama as critics and friends alike have questioned his leadership. His decision yesterday, however, shows that he understands the importance of words and symbols and that he has keen eye for recruiting the right people at precisely the right moment.

General McChrystal's comments to Rolling Stone put the president in a terrible predicament, and he wisely decided to replace the general. To do anything less would undermine his authority as commander in chief, and since the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan hinges on coordinating political, military, and diplomatic efforts, the president had little choice. The general's impertinent comments matter--not just politically but also substantively--and simply summoning the general to the White House as some symbolic trip to the wood shed would not have sufficed.

But the brilliance of the president's action stems not from his dismissal of McChrystal but his appointment of General David Petraeus. Not only did General Petraeus write the Army's book on counterinsurgency (quite literally), but he successfully implemented that strategy in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. At West Point, he graduated in the top five percent of his class, and since earning a Ph.D. at Princeton, he has amassed a remarkable number of military and public recognitions. He is a smart, well-respected leader. But most helpful for this next assignment is the loyalty he inspires among U.S. troops and his ability to work with many different players, which happen to be the very strengths that served him so well in Iraq.

For my research on White House Fellows, I interviewed Everett Spain, who was as a Fellow in 2008 immediately after serving as General Petraeus' aide-de-camp in Baghdad for nineteen months. In this role, Spain worked as the general's chief personal assistant; he was the person with the general morning, noon, and night and saw him in every conceivable circumstance. Usually, observing a leader up close so intensely in such a demanding situation for months on end dulls the assistant's enthusiasm for his boss. Stressful jobs can bring out the worst in leaders, and their assistants are the ones are on the receiving end most often.

So when I asked Lt. Col. Spain for his assessment of General Petraeus, I was surprised at how much he gushed. That part of the interview was largely off the record, but he gave numerous examples of how Petraeus inspired loyalty among those under his command and how he won respect from key Iraqi officials. From simple gestures such as picking up trash while running at 5 a.m. with Spain (as was his daily custom) to massaging a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki (with useful help from Ambassador Ryan Crocker), General Petraeus was more successful than anyone in quelling the violence in Iraq.

As the challenges in Afghanistan continue to mount, we need a commander who can stem the tide and not lose a step in this transition moment. I have real doubts that the United States can eventually "succeed" in Afghanistan whatever that would mean. As Senators Diane Feinstein and Richard Lugar of the Senate Intelligence Committee stated on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend, we have never defined what success would look like in Afghanistan, so it's not surprising that it has eluded us thus far. But many--including me--thought the same about Iraq back in 2006. General Petraeus is the right person for this difficult assignment.

This is an ignominious end for General McChrystal's otherwise distinguished career, but if the counterinsurgency strategy he has championed in Afghanistan can actually achieve gains comparable to what took place in Iraq a few years back, perhaps history will be kinder to him than the headlines of this week.

By D. Michael Lindsay

 |  June 24, 2010; 12:27 PM ET
Category:  Wartime Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I agree Obama's decision was a sound one. But how will Obama ensure continuity with his Afghan policy and collect needed data from the de-faced McCrystal about the situation on the ground?

Posted by: csmallam2 | June 28, 2010 11:05 AM
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War brings out the best – and worst – in a nation's military. I think it's safe to say that through the two wars our nation has fought over the past decade, David Petreaus has emerged as one of the brightest stars in the United States military. The fact that he is willing to be demoted to to take over the war effort in Afghanistan demonstrates his understanding of what is necessary for the broader interests of the United States. He's a man who might well make a great president.

Posted by: JonEndean | June 26, 2010 1:22 PM
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Had there been no Petraeus to replace McChrystal, this would not have been as smart a move. Removing McChrystal would have looked like pique rather than command. So much is at stake.

Posted by: delewi | June 26, 2010 9:45 AM
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I disagree it was so obvious to fire the general. Obama could have shown a lot of strength by forgiving and allowing him to stay. As they say, sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Posted by: iamoutlier | June 25, 2010 11:18 PM
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In a moment of polarization among political elites, to see practically everyone give plaudits to the choice of General Petraeus underscores the merit of this decision.

Afghanistan, a nation riven with tribal divisions, is now at a critical juncture. If anyone can create the military conditions necessary to lead Afghanistan away from civil war and towards a future in which its vast lithium deposits can help the economic development, it's General Petraeus.

Posted by: MBug | June 25, 2010 10:58 PM
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Interesting anecdotes from Lt Col. Spain on Petraeus' humble, effective leadership style. It is good to see that Professor Lindsay concurs with the President's decision.

By naming Petraeus to oversee U.S. forces in Afghanistan, President Obama displayed decisive and pragmatic leadership. As a Senator, Barack Obama opposed the surge and seemed doubtful of COIN's potential efficacy in Iraq. After Petraeus produced undeniable results in Iraq, President Obama pivoted away from his previous position and has now wisely embraced the Petraeus doctrine (and the General himself) as the answer to the intractable problems we face in Afghanistan.

By removing McCrystal and elevating Petraeus, President Obama demonstrated his awareness of imperative of the chain of command and showed a willingness to shift course toward policies that work, not just those that fit one's ideology.

Posted by: PDXOwl | June 25, 2010 10:39 PM
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It's disappointing that one screw up can wreck McChrystal's career.

Posted by: mghagercchs | June 25, 2010 6:43 PM
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I appreciate the example about Petraeus picking up trash in Spain -- shows how the little, everyday things indicate character that shines through in the big moments, too.

Posted by: jparis | June 25, 2010 7:50 AM
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Your observations make me curious about how and in what way McChrystal's leadership was compromised in Afghanistan and his regrettable comments were the result not only of a personal failure on a leader's part but a structural failure as well. If it is the latter, Petraeus's clearly remarkable leadership will indeed be challenged.

Posted by: DanielASiedell | June 25, 2010 7:00 AM
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Of course Obama made the right decision to fire McChrystal and put Petraeus in his place, but were their any warning signs earlier than this? It seems like this is a crisis that could have been avoided by earlier intervention by a more proactive president. Or maybe McChrystal wasn't even the right guy for the job in the firs place...

Posted by: swamidass | June 25, 2010 1:46 AM
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