Published on Friday, September 25, 2009 by TomDispatch.com
How to Trap a President in a Losing War
Petraeus, McChrystal, and the Surgettes
Front and center in the debate over the Afghan War these days are General Stanley "Stan" McChrystal, Afghan war commander, whose "classified, pre-decisional"  and devastating report -- almost eight years and at least $220 billion  later, the war is a complete disaster -- was conveniently, not to say suspiciously, leaked  to Bob Woodward of the Washington Post by we-know-not-who  at a particularly embarrassing moment for Barack Obama; Admiral Michael "Mike" Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been increasingly vocal  about a "deteriorating" war and the need for more American boots  on the ground; and the president himself, who blitzed  every TV show in sight last Sunday and Monday for his health reform program, but spent significant time expressing doubts  about sending more American troops to Afghanistan. ("I'm not interested in just being in
On the other hand, here's someone you haven't seen front and center for a while: General David Petraeus. He was, of course, George W. Bush's pick to lead the president's last-ditch effort in
He never met a journalist, as far as we can tell, he didn't want to woo. (And he clearly won over the influential Tom Ricks, then of the Washington Post, who wrote The Gamble, a bestselling paean to him and his sub-commanders.) From the look of it, he's the most political general to come down the pike since, in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur said his goodbyes to Congress after being cashiered  by President Truman for insubordination -- for, in effect, wanting to run his own war and the foreign policy that went with it. It was Petraeus who brought Vietnam-era counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) back from the crypt, overseeing  the writing of a new Army counterinsurgency manual that would make it central to both the ongoing wars and what are already being referred to as the "next" ones.
Before he left office, Bush advanced his favorite general to the head of
On taking over, McChrystal, who had previously been a counterterrorism guy  (and isn't about  to give that up, either), swore fealty to counterinsurgency doctrine (that is, to Petraeus) by proclaiming that the American goal in Afghanistan must not be primarily to hunt down and kill Taliban insurgents, but to "protect the population." He also turned to a "team"  of civilian experts, largely gathered  from
As in many official reassessments, the cast of characters essentially guaranteed the results before a single meeting was held. Based on past history and opinions, this team could only provide one Petraeus-approved answer to the war: more -- more troops, up to 40,000-45,000 of them, and other resources for an American counterinsurgency operation without end.
Hence, even if McChrystal's name is on it, the report slipped to Bob Woodward which just sandbagged the president has a distinctly Petraeusian shape to it. In a piece linked to Woodward's bombshell in the Washington Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung wrote  of unnamed officials in
There is, wrote DeYoung a day later, now a "rupture"  between the military "pushing for an early decision to send more troops" and civilian policymakers "increasingly doubtful of an escalating nation-building effort." Nancy Youssef of McClatchy News wrote  about how "mixed signals" from
Buyer's Remorse, the Afghan War, and the President
In the midst of all this, between Admiral Mullen and General McChrystal is, it seems, a missing man. The most photogenic general in our recent history, the man who created the doctrine and oversees the war, the man who is now shaping the U.S. Army (and its future plans and career patterns), is somehow, at this crucial moment, out of the Washington spotlight. This last week General Petraeus was, in fact, in England, giving a speech  and writing an article  for the (London) Times laying out his basic "protect the population" version of counterinsurgency and praising our British allies by quoting one of their great imperial plunderers. ("If Cecil Rhodes was correct in his wonderful observation that 'being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life,' and I'm inclined to think that he was, then the second greatest prize in the lottery of life must be to be a friend of an Englishman, and based on that, the more than 230,000 men and women in uniform who work with your country's finest day by day are very lucky indeed, as am I.")
Only at mid-week, with
So much is, of course, happening just beyond the sightlines of those of us who are mere citizens of this country, which is why inference and guesswork are, unfortunately, the order of the day. Read any account in a major newspaper right now and it's guaranteed to be chock-a-block full of senior officials and top military officers who are never "authorized to speak," but nonetheless yak away from behind a scrim of anonymity. Petraeus may or may not be one of them, but the odds are reasonable that this is still a Petraeus Moment.
If so, Obama has only himself to blame. He took up
Once in office, Obama compounded the damage by doubling down his bet on the war. In March, he introduced a "comprehensive new strategy for
As it happens, this was never Obama's "war of necessity." It was always Petraeus's. And the new report from McChrystal and the Surgettes is undoubtedly Petraeus's progeny as well. It seems, in fact, cleverly put together to catch a cautious president, who wasn't cautious enough about his war of choice, in a potentially devastating trap. The military insistence on quick action on a troop decision sets up a devastating choice for the president: "Failure to provide  adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure." Go against your chosen general and the failure that follows is yours alone. (Unnamed figures  supposedly close to McChrystal are already launching test balloons, passed on  by others, suggesting that the general might resign in protest if the president doesn't deliver -- a possibility he has denied  even considering.) On the other hand, offer him somewhere between 15,000 and 45,000 more American troops as well as other resources, and the failure that follows will still be yours.
It's a basic lose-lose proposition and, as journalist Eric Schmitt wrote  in a New York Times assessment of the situation, "it will be very hard to say no to General McChrystal." No wonder the president and some of his men are dragging their feet and looking elsewhere . As one typically anonymous "defense analyst" quoted  in the Los Angeles Times said, the administration is suffering "buyer's remorse for this war... They never really thought about what was required, and now they have sticker shock."
Admittedly, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll , 51% of Americans are against sending in more troops. (Who knows how they would react to a president who went on TV to announce that he had genuinely reconsidered?) Official Washington  is another  matter . For General Petraeus, who claims to have no political ambitions but is periodically mentioned as the Eisenhower of 2012, how potentially peachy to launch your campaign against the president who lost you the war.
A Petraeus Moment?
In the present context, the media language being used to describe this military-civilian conflict of wills -- frustration, impatience, split, rupture, ire -- may fall short of capturing the import of a moment which has been brewing, institutionally speaking, for a long time. There have been increasing numbers of generals' "revolts"  of various sorts in our recent past. Of course, George W. Bush was insistent on turning planning over to his generals (though only when he liked them), something Barack Obama criticized him  for during the election campaign. ("The job of the commander in chief is to listen to the best counsel available and to listen even to people you don't agree with and then ultimately you make the final decision and you take responsibility for those actions.")
Now, it looks as if we are about to have a civilian-military encounter of the first order in which Obama will indeed need to take responsibility for difficult actions (or the lack thereof). If a genuine clash heats up, expect more discussion of "MacArthur moments," but this will not be Truman versus MacArthur redux, and not just because Petraeus seems to be a subtler political player than MacArthur ever was.
Over the nearly six decades that separate us from Truman's great moment, the Pentagon has become a far more overwhelming institution. In
It's one thing for the leaders of a country to say that war should be left to the generals when suddenly embroiled in conflict, quite another when that country is eternally in a state of war. In such a case, if you turn crucial war decisions over to the military, you functionally turn foreign policy over to them as well. All of this is made more complicated, because the cast of "civilians" theoretically pitted against the military right now includes Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who is the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Douglas Lute, a lieutenant general who is the president's special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan (dubbed the "war czar" when he held the same position in the Bush administration), and James Jones, a retired Marine Corps general, who is national security advisor, not to speak of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a former director  of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The question is: will an already heavily militarized foreign policy geared to endless global war be surrendered to the generals? Depending on what Obama does, the answer to that question may not be fully, or even largely, clarified this time around. He may quietly give way, or they may, or compromises may be reached behind the scenes. After all, careers and political futures are at stake.
But consider us warned. This is a question that is not likely to go away and that may determine what this country becomes.
We know what a MacArthur moment was; we may find out soon enough what a Petraeus moment is.
© 2009 TomDispatch.com
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com  ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project  and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters  (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His book, The End of Victory Culture  (
Published on Friday, September 25, 2009 by Agence
WASHINGTON - Top US military officer Admiral Mike Mullen on Friday held a secret meeting in Germany with the NATO commander in Afghanistan to discuss a request for more troops, officials said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, seen here September 15, in
Mullen met General Stanley McChrystal at an air base in Ramstein "so he could get a better understanding of the general's request" for additional troops, a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
The unannounced meeting comes at a pivotal moment in the war as President Barack Obama weighs strategy in the face of rising casualties, a disputed Afghan election and declining public support for the mission on both sides of the
McChrystal's appeal for more troops and resources was due to be formally submitted to Defense Secretary Robert Gates by Saturday but Gates has decided to hold off presenting the request to Obama until the administration completes a review of war strategy.
The details of McChrystal's request remain unclear but he is reportedly expected to appeal for 10,000 to 40,000 additional troops.
McChrystal, who took over command in June after his predecessor was sacked, warned in an assessment leaked to US media this week that the NATO-led mission faces failure in a year without more forces.
The defense official denied any tension between the military leadership and the White House over the pace of decision-making on
"There is no sense of unease here with regard to the president's review of strategy," the official said.
Admiral Mullen and the rest of the joint chiefs of staff agreed there was a need to examine the mission six months after Obama unveiled a strategy focused on improving security and economic development, the official said.
But the top officers recognize that counter-insurgency campaigns are "dynamic" and that there is "a very fine line between success and failure," he said.
© 2009 AFP
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs