How to Trap a President in a Losing War: Petraeus, McChrystal, and the Surgettes

Thursday, 24 September 2009 15:32 By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch.com | name.

How to Trap a President in a Losing War: Petraeus, McChrystal, and the Surgettes
(Photo: Sgt. Jennifer Cohen / US Army photo)

    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 Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan... or sending a message that America is here for the duration.")

    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 Iraq. He was the poster boy for Bush's military policies in his last two years. He was the highly praised architect and symbol of "the surge." He appeared repeatedly, his chest a mass of medals and ribbons, for heavily publicized, widely televised congressional testimony, complete with charts and graphs, that was meant, at least in part, for the American public. He was the man who, to use an image from that period which has recently resurfaced, managed to synchronize the American and Baghdad "clocks," pacifying for a time both the home and war fronts.

    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 U.S. Central Command, which oversees the former president's Global War on Terror across the energy heartlands of the planet from Egypt to Pakistan. The command is, of course, especially focused on Bush's two full-scale wars: the Iraq War, now being pursued under Petraeus's former subordinate, General Ray Odierno, and the Afghan War, for which Petraeus seems to have personally handpicked a new commanding general, Stan McChrystal. From the military's dark side world of special ops and targeted assassinations, McChrystal had operated in Iraq and was also part of an Army promotion board headed by Petraeus that advanced the careers of officers committed to counterinsurgency. To install McChrystal in May, Obama abruptly sacked the then-Afghan war commander, General David McKiernan, in what was then considered, with some exaggeration, a new MacArthur moment.

    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 Washington think-tanks, a number of whom had been involved in planning out Petraeus's Iraq surge of 2007, to make an assessment of the state of the war and what needed to be done. Think of them as the Surgettes.

    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 Washington who claimed "the military has been trying to push Obama into a corner." The language in the coverage elsewhere has been similar.

    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 Washington were causing "increasing ire from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan"; a group of McClatchy reporters talked of military advocates of escalation feeling "frustration" over "White House dithering." David Sanger of the New York Times described "a split between an American military that says it needs more troops now and an American president clearly reluctant to leap into that abyss." "Impatient" is about the calmest word you'll see for the attitude of the military top command right now.

    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 Washington aboil, did he arrive in the capital for a counterinsurgency conference at the National Press Club and quietly "endorse" "General McChrystal's assessment." Whatever the look of things, however, it's unlikely that Petraeus is actually on the sidelines at this moment of heightened tension. He is undoubtedly still The Man.

    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 Afghanistan ("the right war") in the presidential campaign as proof that, despite wanting to end the war in Iraq, he was tough. (Why is it that a Democratic candidate needs a war or threat of war to trash-talk about in order to prove his "strength," when doing so is obviously a sign of weakness?)

    Once in office, Obama compounded the damage by doubling down his bet on the war. In March, he introduced a "comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan" in his first significant public statement on the subject, which had expansion written all over it. He also agreed to send in 21,000 more troops (which, by the way, Petraeus reportedly convinced him to do). In August, in another sign of weakness masquerading as strength, before an unenthusiastic audience at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, he unnecessarily declared: "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." All of this he will now pay for at the hands of Petraeus, or if not him, then a coterie of military men behind the latest push for a new kind of Afghan War.

    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 Afghanistan, as in Washington, it has swallowed up much of what once was intelligence, as it is swallowing up much of what once was diplomacy. It is linked to one of the two businesses, the Pentagon-subsidized weapons industry, which has proven an American success story even in the worst of economic times (the other remains Hollywood). It now holds a far different position in a society that seems to feed on war.

    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.

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    Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. He is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of the Cold War and beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. He also edited The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), an alternative history of the mad Bush years.

Last modified on Thursday, 24 September 2009 17:03