Catchy cover story by Mehdi Hasan in the British weekly the New Statesman.
David Petraeus, George Bush’s “main man” in Iraq and an American military icon, is now expected to win what many consider to be the unwinnable Afghan war. Is the US once again succumbing to the cult of the generals?
On 23 June, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, sacked his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The general and his aides were quoted making disparaging remarks about their commander-in-chief, and other senior colleagues, in a now famous article in Rolling Stone magazine.
In announcing the dismissal of McChrystal, the president said he had made his decision not on the basis of "any difference in policy" nor out of "any sense of personal insult", but because the article had eroded trust and undermined "the civilian control of the military that's at the core of our democratic system".
Could this be the end of the love affair between the US political and military classes? In an age in which the citizenry is disillusioned with politicians and repulsed by the bankers, America's top generals, notably McChrystal and his celebrated mentor David Petraeus, have become the subjects of awe and reverence, not to mention the repositories of wide-ranging policymaking powers.
Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel, decorated Gulf war veteran and adviser to the Pentagon until 2004, says he is disturbed by the "modern deification" of generals. "Most Americans have no military experience," he tells me. "They tend to impute to anyone wearing stars a degree of competence and courage associated with battle-hardened leaders of the Second World War or the Korean conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth."
During his eight years in office, Bush relied on different generals to prop up his administration's foreign and defence policies, in particular on Iraq: from the plain-speaking Tommy Franks and the Arabic-speaking John Abizaid, who oversaw the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2002 and 2003, to the soldier-scholar Petraeus and the shaven-headed Ray Odierno, who executed the so-called surge in US military forces which, its supporters claim, helped reduce the violence in that country between 2007 and 2008.
Petraeus stands out above the rest. A West Point graduate with a PhD in international relations from Princeton, he co-authored the US army's much-lauded manual on counter-insurgency, or "Coin", in 2006. Coin theory disinters the Vietnam-era language of "clear, hold and build", and describes soldiers and marines as "nation-builders as well as warriors". It emphasises a "population-centric" over an enemy-centred approach, and demands large numbers of troops. The Iraq surge was built on the ideas contained in Petraeus's Coin manual and the general himself implemented these ideas as Bush's commander on the ground.
The then president constantly invoked Petraeus's name as he defended his new strategy in Iraq. Bush, noted the Washington Post in July 2007, called Petraeus his "main man" and managed to stave off a revolt over Iraq by Congressional Republicans by telling them "to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgement."
What presidential leadership.
Bush's main man is now also Obama's main man. The current president pre-empted Republican criticisms of his decision to fire McChrystal by instantly appointing Petraeus in his place as the new US commander in Afghanistan. Given the success in Iraq that he and his surge have been credited with [italics added], Petraeus is the particular favourite of pro-war pundits at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News and at the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine. He is equally popular with hawkish neoconservatives such as the former vice-president Dick Cheney and the independent senator Joe Lieberman. Other generals are also popular in these quarters, such as Odierno, the current commander in Iraq, seen to have been successful in fighting terrorists, insurgents and dictators in America's so-called war on terror.
NB: By definition, Dick Cheney is no neocon.
“The senior ranks are politicised in ways never seen in the history of the United States," says Colonel Macgregor. "The top bureaucrats in uniform - that is, the top generals and admirals - are tied to neoconservative political circles in Washington, DC in ways that did not exist before 2001."
But is it too easy to blame it all on Bush and his neocon allies? "American grand strategy has been a shambles for a long time - arguably from the end of the cold war," says the former Pentagon official. "The vacuum of strategic thinking gets filled by operational thinking, which only the military is providing. If we had real strategic thinking and real strategic action, then civilian leaders could more credibly direct the military to do its bidding. But without an overall sense of what the US priorities and objectives are, we are collectively reduced to chasing tactical issues, and the military has the loudest voice in that domain."
Powell was the archetypal soldier-politician. Such was his national popularity as a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the mid-1990s that most observers believe he could have defeated Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1996 had he stood as the Republican candidate. In the end, he didn't take the plunge - but Petraeus might. A registered Republican, he is thought to be considering a run for the White House in 2012. If so, Obama's decision to send him to Afghanistan could be a tactical move to remove him from the political equation, as the general's tour will last at least a year or longer.
But 2016 could be an even more attractive proposition for Petraeus, who is 57, and his Republican backers - assuming he has "won" the war in Afghanistan by then.
Journalists have often attributed super powers to the US military leadership, despite its failure to question the legitimacy and rationale of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and its inability to contain the rise of first the Iraqi and now the Afghan insurgencies. While the top brass are deified and deferred to at home, the military they command is humiliated abroad.
Rather harsh, I'd say, but the notion of bifurcation seems valid. That is, the top brass -- Petraeus, not really anyone else -- is deferred to and certainly practically deified in some circles at home (Senate voted 99-0 to confirm). And the military is at least thwarted and no doubt laughed at by jihadis abroad, forcibly rendered impotent by COIN's impossible mission to win Islamic hearts and minds, all of which leads to war unending.
Macgregor says two types of journalists are complicit in sustaining the cult of the generals - first, those who support the war on terror, and backed the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. This group has used the popularity and seemingly apolitical status of modern generals to "cultivate support inside the American electorate for policies Americans would not normally support". Add to these, he says, "still more journalists who are anxious to enrich themselves by writing ridiculous puff pieces and books about the four stars - men who, for the most part, have no personal experience of direct-fire combat and whose decisions are limited to when and where to approve air strikes against people with no armies, no air defences and no air forces".
The largely uncritical reporting of senior military figures, acknowledges a former adviser to US military commanders in Iraq, is also a "cynical move to ensure continued access to war zones that are ultimately controlled by generals. It generally pays enormous dividends for reporters to have good access to senior officers and, thus, good relations are critical."
These "good relations" produce positive coverage. McChrystal, for example, has been described as a "Jedi" commander (in the words of Newsweek) and an "intellectual and athletic bad-ass" (Vanity Fair). Reporters tended to avoid focusing on his role in the cover-up of the death from "friendly fire" of the army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004, or his links to the abuse and torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq in 2006.
As the former adviser to US military commanders in Iraq points out: "Prior to the Rolling Stone article, profiles of McChrystal tended towards the hagiographic, portraying him as 'brilliant' and virtually superhuman in his personal qualities. But profiles of Karl Eikenberry [the US ambassador in Afghanistan] paled by comparison. Yet Eikenberry has a PhD from Stanford and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. If anyone in Afghanistan is brilliant, it's him. But since he was not the military commander, he was not as interesting, and he's not as good a story." (It is worth noting, incidentally, that even the Rolling Stone profile which cost him his job described McChrystal as "brilliant" and referred breathlessly to his "custom-made set of nunchucks".)
The Congressional and media hawks in the United States have acquiesced in the rise and political empowerment of a new cadre of generals and commanders committed to pushing policies - such as so-called small wars, based on counter-insurgency principles - that the US public has usually been sceptical of. It is worth reflecting on a 2006 conversation, revealed by the journalist Bob Woodward in his book The War Within, between the retired general Jack Keane, a former army vice-chief of staff and one of the architects of Petraeus's surge in Iraq, and Robert Gates, then defence secretary to President Bush (and who is now serving in the same post under President Obama):
"Let's be frank about what's happening here," Keane told Gates. "We are going to have a new administration. Do we want these policies continued or not? Do we want the best guys in there who were involved in these policies, who were advocates for them? Let's assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them."
Terrible price? There is a terrible price being paid every day by acquiescing to them. At the same time, it is not the generals who are at fault. It is the Congress who has abdicated in every way its responsibility to examine why it is that America remains at war, endlessly prosecuting strategies that have nothing to do with common sense, let alone American national security requirements.