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 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

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 Timesdescribed
"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

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

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

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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