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Why didn't Obama listen to Petraeus?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • David Gergen: Obama carrying through on promise by reducing troop levels
  • He says president sided with Biden against advice of Petraeus, others
  • Gergen: Petraeus wanted more moderate reduction to sustain fight against Taliban
  • He says given Petraeus' sterling record, Obama should have followed his advice

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @david_gergen

(CNN) -- There was something deeply unsettling about President Obama's speech on Afghanistan and much of the commentary that surrounded it -- or at least there was to me, as someone who clings to some old-fashioned traditions about U.S. foreign policy.

It should be said up front that the speech itself was well crafted. More importantly, President Obama deserves credit on two fronts.

First, he has kept his promises as a candidate and then in the Oval Office that he would wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that he considered responsible. When he came into office, the U.S. had approximately 190,000 troops deployed in the two war zones; the wind-downs that are under way will mean that by the end of this year, we will have less than 100,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Promise kept.

Second, the president deserves credit for having the guts to order up a surge in Afghanistan in 2009 -- against the wishes of many in his party -- and for overseeing many successes from the surge, including devastating blows against al Qaeda. Promise kept.

But the issue before him in his East Room speech was where to go from here in Afghanistan. Everyone in his administration agrees that it is time to begin winding down the Afghanistan surge, as he promised in his West Point speech in 2009. The central question was how to do that.

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Going forward, Gen. David Petraeus -- who runs the military operations in Afghanistan -- was widely reported to favor a slow, moderate reduction in U.S. forces, ensuring that the U.S. would continue to keep strong troop strength not only in 2011 but through the fighting season in Afghanistan in 2012. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared that view, according to reports. (In a wonderful bit of commentary, Joe Klein of Time has posited that the fighting season in Afghanistan starts in the spring when the opium crop has been harvested and ends in November or so when the harvest season opens for marijuana.)

Set against the recommendations of his top military commander and his defense and diplomatic secretaries were those coming from Vice President Joe Biden and others to speed up the withdrawal and shift quickly from a counterinsurgency strategy (which requires more troops) to a counterterrorism strategy (which requires fewer troops, depending more on pinpoint attacks by drones, special forces and the like).

Another view: End the war and bring troops home

As someone who has seen a lot of military decisions made in the White House, I am accustomed to presidents paying great heed to the views of their commanders on the ground.

In this case, Petraeus was not just the commander on the ground -- he is one of the very best American generals in modern history, a man who has turned around the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. One might think that given his extraordinary success and the great respect in which he is held on Capitol Hill and around the country, Obama would give Petraeus the benefit of the doubt and go with his preferred option.

What we are starting to see now in politics is a stampede toward the exits in Afghanistan.
--David Gergen

But that is exactly what the president decided not to do. Instead of a 3,000-5,000 troop withdrawal this year, as Petraeus is understood to have recommended, Obama went for 10,000. And instead of protecting two full seasons of strong American troop presence in Afghanistan, Obama set forth a plan that almost certainly will compromise next season's fighting.

As a top general at the Pentagon told me, there is great fear that once troops know they are definitely coming home next summer, they will be focused on getting out of there safely -- not on serious engagement with the Taliban.

Petraeus will loyally support the president in public, as he should. So will Gates and Clinton, even though both accepted the president's decision reluctantly, according to The New York Times.

But the impression grows that the president and his team were heavily influenced by the growing weariness with war in the public -- 56% now say we should get out of Afghanistan -- and by fears of the cost of war. All that is understandable -- the president clearly has one eye (or both?) on his re-election campaign next year.

Politics ever intrudes in policy-making. But in foreign policy, the tradition has usually been that a president's role is to figure out what is in the nation's security interest and do that. A strong president tries to rally public opinion behind him, not bend to the latest shift in the winds.

What we are starting to see now in politics is a stampede toward the exits in Afghanistan. The wars are bleeding us dry, it is said -- over $1 trillion over the past 10 years. Never mind that during those same years, a bloated government spent about $40 trillion in total. The public doesn't like Afghanistan anymore, it is said. Never mind that the public soured on Iraq, too, but President George W. Bush (despite his other faults) had the gumption to stick to his guns and order up a surge, and Iraq today is in much better shape than if we had retreated back when.

Given what Petraeus and others were arguing, I had hoped to hear more of that from Obama. He is certainly capable of making tough calls. But instead he delivered an address that had echoes of "Come Home, America," a famous convention speech by George McGovern during the Vietnam period that served as a powerful encomium to American ideals -- but also advocated a much more precipitous withdrawal than the wisdom of the American people could earnestly endorse.

No doubt, Obama's speech will appeal to many, many Americans. He is right that we do have to engage in more nation-building here at home. But we dare not head for the exits too quickly.

I wish he had listened to Gen. Petraeus.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.

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