President Obama is often portrayed as a political neophyte who is forever confronting situations that are far over his head, but his choice of General David H. Petraeus to replace General Stanley A. McChrystal was in some ways a masterly political stroke, though it does not seem to have achieved all that Obama may have intended.
The president’s move has nothing to do with any effort to maintain a “winning” strategy in Afghanistan. No realistic person could even conceive how the United States could “win” in Afghanistan. In fact, one may doubt that the main purpose of Obama’s escalation of the war in 2009 had to do with “winning,” since unlike his predecessor, Obama actually gives the appearance of knowing what is going on. Rather, Obama’s purpose is fundamentally a political one: preventing, or at least limiting, political damage from the Afghanistan war.
Obama sees the need to maneuver between the positions of the war hawks and the advocates of peace with whom he largely agrees. Political considerations largely determine how Obama acts regarding Afghanistan, as they do regarding almost everything else he decides. (All successful U.S. politicians generally act in that manner.) If he were to base his action on his personal view of the merits of the issue, it seems likely that he would opt for peace and pull the troops out. As antiwar critic Sheldon Richman writes in his Counterpunch article “Endless Occupation?” (June 29):
Obama presumably would like to get out — he can’t be thrilled about presiding over America’s longest war — but the cross-currents may leave him no choice but to tread water. The military wants to “win,” whatever that means, while the Right is ready to pounce on Obama as an appeaser of terrorists if he acknowledges the reality of this inglorious war. (Al-Qaeda has moved on.)
Obama’s right-wing critics constantly characterize his foreign policy as one of weakness, and it is that notion that Obama goes all out to dispel, fearing that, if the view caught on among the general public, it would do significant political harm to him among the moderate swing voters, upon whose support he must rely. On the other hand, peace voters will continue to support Obama even if he differs with their position at times, because the Republicans advocate a harder-line war position, and voting for a pro-peace minor party is generally considered a wasted vote.
Thus, in the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama held that it was necessary to more vigorously prosecute the war in Afghanistan to offset his reference to Iraq as the wrong war, showing that he was not averse to using military force per se. And in his escalation in Afghanistan, Obama seemed to be choosing a much safer target for his demonstration of strength than the war hawks’ desired war on Iran.
Just as Obama intensified the war in Afghanistan to protect his own political image, the purpose of his replacement of McChrystal by Petraeus is also to serve his political interests. The furor generated by Michael Hastings’s exposé in “Rolling Stone” on McChrystal and his staff, revealing their derogatory remarks about members of the Obama administration, placed the president on the horns of a dilemma. If he did nothing, allowing McChrystal to remain as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the media would likely imply that Obama was weak and indecisive, and therefore incapable of leading the military.
However, if Obama dismissed McChrystal, a noted expert in counterinsurgency warfare, he would risk being castigated for removing the best man for the job in order to salve his own pride. As conditions deteriorated further in Afghanistan, as they are most likely to do, it would be Obama, not McChrystal’s replacement, who would bear the brunt of the blame.
The choice of Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement was, or at least seemed at the time, a stroke of pure genius that solved the dilemma. Petraeus, stepping down from his higher position as commander of CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command), was the only possible replacement who would not seem to be less capable than McChrystal. For Petraeus is widely credited for solving — with the surge — what is generally regarded as a similar problematic situation in Iraq, and he is the author of the military’s current counterinsurgency doctrine.
Now, those few who have actually studied the situation in Iraq know that no real solution has been found. The rationale for the surge was that improved security would provide the opportunity for the Iraqi central government to work for national reconciliation among the major factions — Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. That clearly did not take place. What the surge actually achieved was temporary pacification, in large part due to the bribing of Sunni sheiks to stop their attacks. Serious ethnic and religious tensions remain, which are apt to explode at any time, and the level of actual violence has recently been on the upswing.
In choosing Petraeus, Obama may also have thought he had found a way to derail a serious political rival. Petraeus had been looking like a possible contender in the 2012 election. By sending him to Afghanistan, Obama has made any such candidacy more difficult. In the words of commentator Tunku Varadarajan at The Daily Beast: “Obama has, at a stroke, taken Petraeus out of the 2012 presidential race.” Varadarajan continues:
Keep your friends close — and the competition closer. There has been a buzz about Petraeus and the presidency since about the fall of last year, and to many in the Republican Party — a party bereft of ideas and credible leaders — the general has increasingly taken on the aspect of a possible messiah. His impeccable military credentials, his undoubted intelligence, his mastery of personal and professional politics … plus his undoubted (if carefully tailored) conservatism have led many to see in him a man who can take on Obama in 2012, and beat him. He is even the sort of guy who’d allow the GOP to broaden its tent, drawing in “undecideds” and independents. (“Obama’s 2012 Power Play,” June 23, 2010)
It is noteworthy that Petraeus has support from both the Republican Right — especially the neoconservatives — and from the general public. For the neocons, Petraeus serves as a replacement for John McCain. The general received the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute’s highest honor for 2010, the Irving Kristol Award. When a statement in a military document attributed to Petraeus turned up to the effect that Israel’s actions were exacerbating American casualties in the Middle East, neocon stalwart Max Boot absolved Petraeus of any criticism of Israel in this instance. (“A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel,” Commentary, March 18, 2010)
As Petraeus’s recently revealed e-mail correspondence indicates, the general had close ties to Boot, whom he relied on to safeguard Petraeus’s good relationship with pro-Israel Jewish Americans. In a message to Boot, written after the publication of Petraeus’s alleged statement about the negative impact of Israel on U.S. forces, Petraeus asked: “Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night? And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps….” Boot, acting as if he understood the collective mind of the American Jewish community, assured Petraeus that this additional obeisance was unnecessary.
The correspondence indicates that Petraeus has not only close ties to a neocon journalist but also high political aspirations; and that he perceives the pro-Israel American Jewish community to be very powerful politically. (See “Petraeus emails show general scheming with journalist to get out pro-Israel storyline,” by Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, July 6, 2010.)
While Petraeus is close to neocons, his political strength stems from the fact that, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, he is seen to be above partisan politics, as political commentator Peter Beinart has pointed out in his article, “Petraeus for President?” (The Daily Beast, October 12, 2010).
The Senate’s unanimous vote on June 30 to confirm Petraeus as the next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan illustrates his widespread support, which transcends political ideology. That broad appeal distinguishes Petraeus from leading Republican political figures such as Sarah Palin, who have strong appeal on the Right but little support, and much opposition, beyond that ideological segment.
But if Petraeus wanted to run for president, why didn’t he just refuse Obama’s offer to command the troops in Afghanistan, on the grounds that there was more pressing work to be done at CENTCOM? In the military hierarchy, going from CENTCOM commander, where Petraeus oversaw American forces throughout much of the broader Middle East region, to Afghan Theater commander was technically a demotion. But the war in Afghanistan is the major military issue at this time. And Petraeus’s heroic image makes him appear as far and away the best man for the job. If he rejected such an offer, Petraeus would seem more interested in his own career than in the good of his country. Such a refusal would undermine his image as a self-sacrificing patriot, and his presidential chances would be severely harmed, if not ruined.
Now, if everything goes according to form, Petraeus is going to be too occupied in Afghanistan to be able to engage in the public self-promotion that would be necessary to facilitate his run for the presidency. And if the situation in Afghanistan fails to improve dramatically, which is most likely, Petraeus will lose the aura of a military genius, and his political appeal will evaporate. Moreover, Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine would be shown to be ultimately ineffective. As the perceptive war commentators Robert Dreyfuss and Tom Engelhardt observe:
Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go to die, and if the COIN [counterinsurgency] theory isn’t dead yet, it’s utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into the dusty hamlet of Marjah in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon has little to show for its efforts, except ever-rising casualties and money spent. (“The President Chooses the Guru,” Antiwar.com, June 28, 2010)
Obama, on the other hand, would come out of the Afghan misadventure in the best political shape possible, since it could be said that he did all that was possible to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat. On this point, see Jason Ditz’s analysis at Antiwar.com, “Awash With Fictional ‘Success,’ Deployment Sets Petraeus Up for a Big Fall” (June 25, 2010).
In short, Obama has sent Petraeus out to fail, thus tarnishing the general’s image of invincibility and also discrediting the war in Afghanistan. Having provided the proponents of military victory in Afghanistan with additional troops, resources, and now the Napoleon of counterinsurgency, Obama has given them more than enough rope to hang themselves.
At the point it became apparent to the great majority of the American people that the United States could not achieve victory in Afghanistan, despite the most strenuous efforts, the ever-cautious Obama would see that it had become politically safe to declare the war militarily unwinnable and seek some type of diplomatic solution. That is probably something he has wanted to do all along but feared doing when it was still possible that a substantial proportion of the public would blame him for losing Afghanistan.
That is how everything would work out if things went according to form. Unfortunately for Obama, in Petraeus he is dealing with a very politically savvy individual, who knows above all else how to protect his own image. Petraeus is simply too crafty to fall into the trap. Just as he was smart enough to make the surge in Iraq appear like a great success, he is making every effort to avoid the possibility of being blamed for any failure in Afghanistan. In his confirmation hearing, Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee not to expect any success soon in Afghanistan. In another piece at Antiwar.com, Ditz writes that “the general seems to be determined to downplay any hopes of a quick turnaround or even a long-term turnaround of the disastrous war.” (“Petraeus Confirmed, Downplays War Expectations / Says ‘Possible’ Progress Might Be Made in the Future,” June 29, 2010) In his prepared remarks for the committee, Petraeus stated: “My sense is that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months.” (“Petraeus plays down Afghan expectations,” by Adam Entous and Phil Stewart, Reuters [posted at Yahoo! News], June 29, 2010)
Although Petraeus professed support for Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, which includes the July 2011 troop-withdrawal timeline, he essentially said that there is not going to be much, if any, progress by that date and if the United States wants to win it will have to maintain substantial forces in the country for the long term. While the general is too careful to explicitly attack Obama’s July 2011 timeline, his view on the war is rendering it meaningless. He has stated that “it’s important to note that July 2011 will be the beginning of a process … not the date by which we head for the exits and turn off the lights.” (“Is Gen. David Petraeus too big to fail?,” by Ben Smith and Laura Rozen, Politico, June 30, 2010)
Petraeus did not specifically state when the United States should exit Afghanistan or even what progress would look like. Consequently, there will be no way to blame him for failure in Afghanistan because he has not defined success. In short, Petraeus provided an impressive demonstration of the bureaucratic art of pre-emptive CYA.
Petraeus has certainly protected himself from any future blame, but we may wonder why members of Congress should ever support such an undefined mission, which would be somewhat like Congress providing billions of dollars to fund a NASA manned mission to Mars without the head of NASA specifically saying when or even whether the red planet would ever be reached.
During the Senate’s whirlwind confirmation of Petraeus as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, no member of the self-styled “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body” was able to make the transition from Petraeus’s testimony to question the whole purpose of the Afghan war. If there are no concrete benchmarks or an exit date, what is the purpose for the United States’s being there? And how can it be determined whether the U.S. effort is worth it?
Members of the Armed Services Committee should have bombarded Petraeus with those questions at his confirmation hearing and not allowed him to get away with his nebulous formulations. And the whole Senate should have discussed those broad issues on the floor before the final confirmation vote. But none of that was done. The members of the Senate were too much in awe of Petraeus’s great stature, and too fearful that anything they said might be interpreted as harsh questioning of the highly esteemed military leader, which could do them political harm. As national security specialist Winslow T. Wheeler observes in his aptly titled CounterPunch article, “General Petraeus and His Senate Vassals”: “Basically it was a hearing chaired by General Petraeus and attended by politicians supplicating him to offer any response he might care to, preferably blessing the ‘questioner’ with either praise or agreement. It wasn’t oversight; it was bad theater.” (June 25-27, 2010, edition)
So Obama is in no better a position than he was before the McChrystal affair. As the war drags on interminably, it is Obama, not Petraeus, who will be held responsible. If he were a real leader, Obama would be willing to take the political risk for his decision on the matter of war, but he is unwilling to do that. General Petraeus, on the other hand, remains in a position to grab the presidency in 2012, if Obama’s standing in the polls does not improve.