Obama against the clock
Obama's decision will affect his presidency and its policies on two central issues for Israel - the peace process and the Iranian nuclear program.
The dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as top commander in Afghanistan halted U.S. President Barack Obama's downward slide in the opinion polls, The Washington Post reported Friday. The outcome of the act does not necessarily attest to the reason, but Obama's decision will affect his presidency and its policies on two central issues for Israel - the peace process and the Iranian nuclear program.
Obama was elected to lead the executive branch, but if his Democratic Party suffers because of him in the November midterm elections, the president will have a hard time functioning in the second half of his term. In a little over a year, he will have to stop wavering over whether to run in 2012. The party will demand a clear-cut answer soon, to get ready for an internal struggle over who will be the candidate.
A good example of the supremacy of the party over the man, albeit in another type of regime, happened last week in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who made the mistake of miscalculating the balance of forces in the Labor Party, struck a hasty blow against his deputy, Julia Gillard. She was forced to choose between coming to terms with being marginalized and direct confrontation. The Australian method allows the leader to be challenged. The contender taps him on the shoulder and invites him to a duel in the party's institutions within 24 hours. Gillard jumped into the abyss without knowing whether she would win, although the party's concerns about a defeat in the next elections imbued her with hope. Politics as an extreme sport.
Rudd's sudden end recalls that of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, when senior members of the Conservative Party had enough of her rule and wanted to combine saving the party with personal advancement. Under the British system, the party is more important than the party's head. That is, after all, what Shimon Peres tried to explain to Yitzhak Rabin when he tapped him on the shoulder daily over the years.
Obama is an admirer and a student of Abraham Lincoln, U.S. president during the Civil War and liberator of the slaves. Not only did Lincoln declare the split in the 90-year-old United States into the Union and the Confederacy, he was also exemplary as a civilian wartime leader. The first commander of his forces, Gen. George McClellan, who disappointed him, was dismissed and challenged him in the next elections.
Lincoln was pleased only with the last of his commanders, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. In the first elections after the war and Lincoln's assassination, Grant was elected president. McClellan was known as "Little Mac," long before the McDonald's Big Mac and a series of generals with the same prefix: Douglas MacArthur, who was impertinent to Harry Truman; David McKiernan, who was dismissed from his command in Afghanistan; and now McChrystal, only 18 months after Obama beat another Mac, the Republican candidate John McCain.
The leadership exercise of dismissing McChrystal was Obama's first gamble. An even bigger gamble is the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus as supreme commander in Afghanistan. Petraeus will be his own man and immune to dismissal; after the two Macs, his failure will reflect badly on the person responsible for the three appointments.
If he succeeds, despite the difficult conditions and following his image as victorious in Iraq, he can skip directly to the Republican presidential primaries. When Truman fired MacArthur during the Korean War, the real political threat to him came actually from another general, NATO commander Dwight Eisenhower, who was summoned almost directly from basic training to the White House; Truman decided not to run.
Moving Petraeus from U.S. Central Command means Israel's security establishment loses a friend, who under the right circumstances could play an important role in persuading Obama that there is no longer a choice but military action against Iran. He could also move ahead vigorously on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks.
But in the McChrystal crisis, Colin Powell has once again appeared - the indispensable man whom, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state, the two presidents Bush needed to wage war in the Persian Gulf. Powell, who helped Obama against McCain, is also Obama's mentor in war. His counsel may tip the scales when Obama agonizes over the question of war against Iran. Here is a challenge for Powell's old friend, Ehud Barak.