As a senator, Barack Obama opposed Gen. David Petraeus' surge in Iraq, declared without hesitation it would fail and called for troop withdrawals.
Now President Obama has turned to Petraeus - whose credibility in Congress, among NATO allies and throughout the Middle East derives from his success in Iraq - to revive his stalled military campaign in Afghanistan.....one defined by his own troop surge.
Petraeus agreed to give up his higher military position - head of Central Command - and submit to Senate confirmation for a new post - commander of US forces in Afghanistan - after Obama accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal walked into the Oval Office and immediately offered to resign over his comments and those of his senior staff in Rolling Stone. McChrystal did not fight to save his job, which he knew was gone. The two spoke for 30 minutes, largely about developments on the ground in a theater McChrystal has helped shape and a war he will no longer prosecute.
A senior administration official said Obama accepted the resignation "regretfully, sorrowfully." The official might have also added "swiftly."
Among the many things that irked Obama, was the article's dismissive tone toward allied forces fighting with US troops in Afghanistan. At the troop level, US frustration with NATO forces is well-known. That Team McChrystal gave voice to it, Obama felt, needlessly insulted allied nations and complicated his efforts to hold the shaky coalition together (Canada plans to pull its troops out in 2011 and the Netherlands, having since its government fall, will stick with an August withdrawal date).
McChrystal did not resign from the military, merely his command in Afghanistan. He will not return to the country, leaving cleanup of his vast communications center to his staff - all of whom must also find other military assignments. Petraeus will bring his own team to Afghanistan.
The Senate will confirm Petraeus' new role in short order - possibly before week's end. NATO must also endorse the Petraeus move. That will also happen quickly.
After accepting McChrystal's resignation, Obama met with senior advisers in the Oval Office for 45 minutes -- among them Vice President Biden (whom McChrystal specifically dissed), Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and National Security Adviser Jim Jones (whom McChrystal's staff called a "clown").
Obama then sat down with Petraeus, who knew he was on a list of possible successors but was unaware the president would offer him McChrystal's job. The two discussed Obama's desire for Petraeus to take over in Afghanistan for 45 minutes.
Afterward, Obama met with his Afghanistan-Pakistan advisers in the Situation Room, a 30-minute session aides described as a "stern" call for unity of purpose and discipline.
"He doesn’t want to see pettiness," a senior official said. "This job is not about personalities or reputations. It’s about the men and women in uniform and it’s about serving our country."
Obama said this in a Rose Garden ceremony that featured Biden, who clashed frequently with McChrystal, right by his side - perpetually in camera range.
"Now is the time for all of us to come together. Doing so is not an option, but an obligation. I welcome debate among my team, but I won't tolerate division."
Petraeus will give up his Central Command post, which Obama will have to fill. Officials say a nominee will be named after the Senate confirms Petraeus' new assignment.
Interestingly, there's no evidence Petraeus ever offered an opinion to Obama or anyone else in the Pentagon about McChrystal's immolating Rolling Stone interview. Gates and Mullen , both condemned it.
Before McChrystal's resignation, leaders in NATO, unsure who might replace him, lobbied for McChrystal. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, with whom McChrystal has developed a strong relationship, joined the effort. Obama called Karzai before announcing McChrystal's departure. Karzai swiftly embraced Petreaus as his new US partner.
Obama also called British Prime Minister David Cameron, who remains "absolutely committed" to the fight and placed Lt. Gen Nick Parker in charge of NATO forces in the theater until Petraeus arrives. Britain's has 9,500 forces in Afghanistan, the second highest in the alliance, but a tenth of the U.S. contingent.
Jones, the national security adviser, also called NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen after the McChrystal-Petraeus announcement.
"This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy," Obama said.
A key component of that policy is the withdrawal of Obama's 30,000 surge forces in July 2011.
Last week, Petraeus told a Senate committee he supports Obama's policy and said the withdrawal date does not mean a mass exodus of US forces. But Petraeus cautioned that even in a "perfect world" the withdrawal time-line might have to be re-examined.
There's been considerable debate on Capitol Hill - driven principally by Republicans - on whether the July 2011 withdrawal date works for the US or enemy Taliban fighters.
The White House and congressional Democrats argue the July 2011 date is forcing the Afghan government to accelerate the training of military and police forces to take over after US and NATO forces secure key portions of the country.
Republicans counter the withdrawal date should be strictly conditions-based, meaning if the country isn't secure and Afghan forces can't hold terrain won by the US then surge forces should remain.
"I would argue that when the Taliban sends around leaflets quoting members of the administration and suggesting to people in Afghanistan, after July, the Americans are going to leave you, that the enemy is seizing upon this inconsistency and uncertainty," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said today.
"The policy is going to fail because the enemy is emboldened and our friends are uncertain," Graham continued. "And as John McCain says a million times over, you cannot sound an uncertain trumpet in that part of the world. That is my concern, is that the policy is going to lead to freezing of momentum of people coming our way who are on the fence, and it's going to give the enemy a sense of purpose they wouldn't have if the July 2011 date were clarified."
A top White House ally on Afghanistan policy, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, struggled to explain how firm the withdrawal date is today in this lively exchange with reporters.
Levin: "It's critical that you have a commander who supports that policy -- and you do with General Petraeus -- and General McChrystal, by the way, who I asked specifically whether it was his own personal opinion that that was the correct policy, not just that he supported it, but that he agreed with it. And General Petraeus also agrees with this policy.
Now, the question will be asked, 'Well, what happens if you change your mind, General Petraeus, what happens if down the road you think there's more troops needed?' And then he said, 'Of course, then it would be my obligation to tell the president that I've changed my mind.' But that's not where General Petraeus is, that's not where General McChrystal has been, that's not where Secretary Gates is and has been.
Is it etched in stone? Nothing's etched in stone. The president could change his mind. But that is the decision of the commander in chief, and it is agreed with by the commander in the field. And that policy is what is key here, not the personalities, which we've seen some rough edges in the last few days, but the policy. It's critically important it be agreed with by the commander in the field, and it is.
Q: Senator Levin, it sounds like you're saying kind of what Republicans are saying, that -- or you're agreeing that conditions on the ground could dictate a change in that July 2011. I think that's -- is that...
Levin: But it's not conditions based. The decision's made, we're going to start reductions in July of 2011. What happens -- can the president change his mind for whatever reason? He may decide to go in the other direction, he may decide to reduce them more quickly. But a decision's been made. They agree with that decision.
Q: What's it based on?
Levin: It's based on the projection of what the conditions will be in July of 2011. It's their best estimate. But it's a decision, it's not a goal, it's a decision.
Can anybody change their mind? Of course. It's a given that people can change their mind. But that does not mean that they do not support that policy. They do. And...
Q: So it's not set in stone?
Levin: It's as clear as you can make a decision. I mean, president of the United States, commander in chief, has made a decision. Can he change it? Of course. Could someone disagree with it? Of course. Could someone persuade him it's wrong five months from now? Of course. But that doesn't mean that there has not been a decision of the commander in chief that they agree with. That is the decision. That is the order. OK?"
Obama's time-line and Petraeus' strategic devotion to it could be the only flash-point in what's expected to be a pro-forma confirmation process. But it could give the nation, NATO allies and the Karzai government fresh insight into what strategic decisions Obama and Petraeus hashed out during their 45 minutes in the Oval Office.