Thursday, September 9, 2010

The danger of David Petraeus, or how the military plunges us deeper into the morass

Obama gave a speech a week ago about ending formal American combat in Iraq. It might be (sort of) true. It was not triumphalist. It hoped to get (most of the rest of) the troops out – the 125,000 or so, 50,000 regulars, some 75,000 Xe mercenaries - by the end of next year. He spoke of dealing with the economic challenges to America and of a potential strong middle class. This was a good point except that he gave it little substance. Apparently, there will be some payroll tax cuts for small and fairly large business and restoring the Clinton level of taxation for the ultrarich (not near high enough), and about $50 billion for roads and railroads. But this is not yet an intelligent Keynsian jobs program; it is sort of politically useful – might outflank the Republics to retain nominal Democratic majorities in the House and Senate in an era of mass unemployment and the cocoon for reaction of the mainstream media now.

As Paul Krugman emphasized last weekend, power is hostile to truth. The Keystone research group here and here estimated that the official unemployment rate would be 16% (real: about 23%) without the stimulus. That was Obama's accomplishment and it was real enough ($800 billion spent largely on green measures, not a dime for the military; a slight amount of money horrifically spent on surveilling head start children). But unless it undertakes a green and hence productive economy, America is in rapid decline. Obama also squandered much of his chance for real leadership – i.e. with a vision of a semi-healthy capitalism producing decent jobs and dealing with poverty and climate change - in this regard. Nonetheless I must also say, he was on the mark on Labor Day (“if I say fish swim in the sea, the Republicans say: no”).

Now in his “ending the military phase in Iraq” speech, Obama made the point that his predecessor had borrowed abroad for war while eroding the infrastructure and industry of the country (he might have added: harming the poor). This all contributed to the deficit. But it does not explain why the Republicans are so hopelessly partisan – partisan to the bizarre extent of needing to cultivate a view that he is other, Muslim, communist—fascist-socialist “unAmerican.” It does not explain why that Party and much of the Democrats have no program. Meanwhile, Obama risks repeating FDR and the Democrats, as Krugman underlined in "1938 in 2010" here by trying to "balance the budget" with a high level of unemployment and unused capacity. FDR then and Obama now exacerbate the current, and likely growing depression. Krugman makes an even more painful point. Only World War II produced the economic stimulus which normal capitalist politics does not seem to allow a possibility of doing even to “save capitalism” as a kind of system that might achieve nearly full employment and thus a common good (so-called "full employment" under capitalism is a statistical ruse: it actually means 4 or 5% unemployment, that is, perhaps 6-8 million people...).

Put differently, Krugman’s true and stunning point is that America prosperity after World War II was largely due to, a byproduct of the war economy to fight the Nazis. It wasn’t the knowledge involved in Keynsianism. Richard Gilbert, my father, the first Keynsian economist in the US who went to work for Harry Hopkins at the Department of Commerce in 1937, did not talk with me about this directly – but war industry at that time, with an industrial economy, i.e. a serious auto and steel industry inter alia - made production soar even beyond his projections. He debated Senator Robert Taft about how Americans could have both "guns and butter" but his forecasts were far exceeded in the event - and provided (except for blacks in South and many emigres in the ghettoes) a core of middle class jobs. See here and here. But that economic growth, Krugman's argument suggests, was contingent. It need not be repeated, and in the current circumstances, may well not be. Consider American high tech industry which is now providing skilled jobs in for example India (one often, even calling for information nowadays, gets someone in India). So Krugman is right about speaking truth to power, but unfortunately, the capacity to hear – even under Obama – is slight…Consider also Robert Reich's thoughts here.

The Republicans and blue dog Democrats lack heart or compassion or decency, are shadow men and women, who mouth slogans about war - blithely recommending military depredations toward others, and voting military expenditures or tax cuts for the ultra-rich - and refuse to acknowledge or help millions of Americans when they could easily do something (these are the people who walk by a child drowning in a pond...). Reaganomics has come home in the ruin of the American economy – a financial casino and a war complex with incentives to shift jobs and make money overseas - and a lack of conviction except to help the ultra-rich. I should also note on Obama’s behalf, he stands, to a limited extent, against what amounts to sheer nihilism.

Finally, Obama turned to Afghanistan and spoke of the American determination to deter and dispel Al-Qaida. Here his speech revealed a certain belligerent core. He was in control in Iraq – he ended a war or more exactly, a phase of war. He was believable about that, precisely for being real and not triumphalist. Yes American forces will fight, yes the US will keep Iraq in something like client status, and no, it is not the same.

And yet he has pivoted into the previously forgotten imperial war and occupation in Afghanistan which is going even more desperately. As Robert Baer, the CIA agent who fled Bush to become a national security advisor to John Kerry in 2004 put it, the US has no intelligence in Afghanistan (the CIA is like the crusaders, he imagines, confined in a castle on a hill – far from the population and wondering what the ”little people” are doing…) They are like Stanley McChrystals, all tough, willing to cut any throat, lie about any Pat Tillman, who sees his vaunted military plans turn to dust. The situation, as the government' own reports (h/t Wikileaks) reveal, is getting worse and worse. Obama knows this. He is the one who tried to shift focus to Pakistan because Al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan, but was prevented, by McChrystal's unheard-of press conference in London, uncriticized in the mainsteam media (the military-industrial-Wall Street-media-Republican squawk machine core of the complex) from doing so.

In these posts, I will discuss two articles by critical, former insiders or believers in the basic decency of American foreign policy, one sent to me by Andrew Bacevich (for my comments on his recent book Washington Rules, see here), one published by Ray McGovern, on the way the military wing of the war complex (the military-industrial-financial-academic/think tank, congressional/political-media complex) works. When the military represented something decent on torture, Cheney outflanked it with the CIA. But when it represents something bad – on endless war and squandering of lives, Afghani, Iraqi, Pakistani or American, and resources – that is apparently its nature. That is what, sadly, it succeeds at. COIN (counterinsugency), the recycled stategy from counterrevolutionary US aggression in Vietnam is just as stupid and bankrupt – not to mention bankrupting – today as it was 40 years ago. Study Douglas Pike’s manual for counterinsurgency in Vietnam in the 1960s (MIT press) and the words will leap off the page – if only the British Empire had had that manual during the American Revolution, the US would no doubt be just like Canada…

Andy is particularly right in his scathing criticisms of military leadership (see the Limits of Power). One of the virtues of having been an officer as Andy has and coming from a military family with a deep tradition of honor is that he understands, in the bone, how the military gets its way. The military is in many ways the decisive element in the war complex, the one that needs to be fighting, even if not winning nor even seen to be winning wars. The US has, at least on MSNBC (the perhaps Democratic channel run by the war manufacturer GE), stopped fighting in Iraq. But there is no government in place, no democracy which conducts legitimate elections, no electricity or air conditioning (a newly prosperous man has made his money in Baghdad selling slabs of ice), no sanitation, no resolution about the Kurds or the Sunnis…The US wrecked the place and left (sort of). And this the neo-con David Petraeus and Frederick Kagan, ideologue and advisor to the General, call “peace.”

More precisely, the military is the leading element in the war complex whose self-destructiveness the flame-out of the seemingly triumphant General McChrystal stunningly revealed. But Petraeus has launched another public relations campaign, perhaps with White House acquiescence, to keep American forces there indefinitely...

Andy’s article and Ray McGovern’s in the next post both reveal the angling of the military for continuing war, buoyed by the media-Republican (and cowardly Democrat, including in this respect, Obama) lionization of Petraeus. During the Bush-Cheney regime, when civilian leaders went fascist and tortured, the military remained the only mainstream institution at the time standing against these crimes (because, as Colin Powell said within the administration, they legitimize similar crimes against American troops if captured, and as he didn’t add, the United States has troops everywhere, at some 800 bases around the globe, and will not be more secure at home for being more criminal abroad).* So it was morally the opposite of civilian dominance over the military as depicted in the textbooks: the military represented decency even though the authoritarians governed. Unfortunately, however, the always willing Tenet and the CIA, inter alia, could carry out torture in secret sites and at Abu Ghraib, and the military could do nothing. Despite its leading place in the complex of institutions for war, a powerful military could not achieve its goal (many leading officers, though I exempt Anthony Taguba and others who told the truth and were forced to resign or retire, would not place themselves out there to campaign politically) when that aim was decent.

The military elite can dominate only when it pushes American politics further to the Right (in two party competition, I have named this the reactionary two step, see here). But the special role of the military in reaction – and that Obama could discipline McChrystal for public criticism only by promoting his mentor Petraeus and further ensconcing fantastic and self-destructive neo-con – imperial -policies – adds another dimension. The war complex shifts policy and party competition only to the right, and in an era of decadence, faced with economic collapse and two quagmires and counting (drones murder mostly civilians in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; the military, has currently no ability to act on the one or walk away from the other. Here are human actions, the careful Petraeus in the lead, which have a very good chance of pulling the entire structure – the great machine as it were – down. This is perhaps the most likely possibility – despite the miracle of democracy, which amazed the world, in electing Obama - in the swift fall of America from its "unipolar moment" to a secondary power. What kind of regime America becomes in falling, very likely no longer with the rule of law, more authoitarian, and for more subjects, impoverishing and a shell, remains to be seen (consider a potential alliance of a newly empowered – American Presidential “elections” as in 2000 and 2004 have become dubious – Palin and Petraeus).

As Andrew shows vividly, McChystal’s public campaign for counterinsurgency – a "surge" – as the only reasonable approach in Afghanistan was picked up by the press and echoed by Republican/authoritarians. Andrew revealingly contrasts this with Pfc. Bradley Manning who was crucified by that press for performing a public service: releasing the Wikileaks documents about the grotesque misery of the occupation for Afghanis and the occupiers, and how US aid to Pakistan has furthered the Taliban in killing American soldiers. That press has some well-paid people who do not report, because anybody who practices journalism could and should have been mining the documents to undercut White House “spin.” If there was nothing new in the Wikileaks documents, why did the White House working overtime to get reporters to ignore them? Even the denizens of the mainstream press, even op-ed writers for the Times and the Washington Post (now a neo-con aviary) might have bestirred themselves (I exempt Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman and a few others from this; their columns have been to the point, and sometimes inspiring; I should also note that Frank Rich and the Times book review Sunday even celebrated Bacevich’s new Washington Rules here and here. The situation is that desparate.**)

Manning, who served a common good, is harmed by the Obama administration (Obama seeks to shut the gate of government secrecy against people who tell the truth, do what one might have thought of previously as Obama-like things***). McChrystal was allowed to determine the outcome of the policy review by the President - the President would otherwise have been hounded from the Right - and force further irrationality on American policy. What’s wrong with this picture: popular President; the military “behind the scenes” operating to further a rightly unpopular war and the American press: guess the President has to move. Recall Obama took an unprecedented several weeks to review the policy despite belligerent neocon and Democratic neo-neo-con think-tank criticism. Leslie Gelb spoke of how he and other "experts" had been marionettes for war in Iraq; "one can't get on tv otherwise" - and then excoriated Obama for trying to think. Obama encouraged Biden to make the true point: Al-Qaida is in Pakistan. There is no “there there” in the American occupation and further aggression in Afghanistan. See my comments on Mearsheimer on the hopelessness of the occupation here. Obama, to his credit, at least knew the score (he is again an unusual President). But the military won. Civilian control of the military, as Andrew puts it amusingly, “surely you jest.”

With the Iraq surge, the foolish and losing Bush elevated Petraeus and his neocon entourage including Fred Kagan (brother of Robert Kagan who was a leading liar with William Kristol in the campaign for aggression against Iraq and one of the three principals – along with Kristol and Gary Schmitt, two political Straussians - of the Project for a New American Century). Petraeus became a little tin idol of the media and Congress. As Bacevich rightly points out, Obama has fired two commanders in Afghanistan and elevated Petraeus further. He couldn’t achieve civilian control of McChrystal when it counted; he has now made Petraeus even harder to restrain. Obama can't fire Petraeus without endangering his job unless - some possibility - he appeals to anti-war sentiment. But there isn’t now a strong movement from below – something that would push him. And the commercial media and the Republican authoritarians and “tea-baggers” would attack him all out (they are, of course, doing so already – some reason for Obama to consider doing the right thing and really getting troops out in 2011).

Just a note on COIN and McChrystal. McChrystal lied about Pat Tillman – so deep a dishonor that the fact that he was not retired then says something profound about the decadence of the American military elite. In Iraq, Stanley tortured and killed civilians (the core of the Bush era). Still he knew that the point of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not to do so, and won the confidence of "our Afghani leader” Karzai because of it. But he did so by holding up on missiles only after in Marjah, one blew up a house with 12 people, 6 children. Always a little late… Even when an imperial army is “being good,” it is still an army – murdering civilians, particularly children, is American war. The army is not the peace corps. This is one reason why the idea of COIN is squaring a circle.

Further, McChrystal got the rank and file soldiers mad at him, because they were left often undefended against the Taliban, could not call in air attacks and wipe out anything that moves. Here is a second and deeper contradiction in COIN. In this conflict with soldiers, one has to be sympathetic to McChrystal who was trying to do the decent thing; yet the soldiers rightly fear for their lives. COIN is no solution. America (and NATO) have a limited number of foreign occupying troops, who do not speak the language or know the customs, in rugged terrain. The soldiers should never have been put in this position. The US army should be out of Afghanistan and the US needs to rethink its operations against civilians in the Middle East across the board.

Civilian Control? Surely, You Jest.

Andrew J. Bacevich, The New Republic,
August 18, 2010

The principle of civilian control forms the foundation of the American system of civil-military relations, offering assurance that the nation’s very powerful armed forces and its very influential officer corps pose no danger to our democracy. That’s the theory at least, the one that gets printed in civics books and peddled to the plain folk out in Peoria.

Reality turns out to be considerably more complicated. In practice, civilian control—expectations that the brass, having rendered advice, will then loyally execute whatever decision the commander-in-chief makes—is at best a useful fiction.

In front of the curtain, the generals and admirals defer; behind the curtain, on all but the smallest of issues, the military’s collective leadership pursue their own agenda informed by their own convictions of what is good for the country and, by extension, for the institutions over which they preside. In this regard, the Pentagon’s behavior does not differ from that of automakers, labor unions, the movie business, environmental groups, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Israel lobby, or the NAACP.

In Washington, only one decision is considered really final—and that’s the one that goes your way. Senior military officers understand these rules and play by them. When the president or secretary of defense acts in ways not to their liking—killing some sought-after weapons program, for example—they treat that decision as subject to review and revision.

To overturn or modify a policy they judge objectionable, military leaders forge alliances with like-minded members of Congress, for whom the national interest tends to coincide with whatever benefits their constituents. Senior officers also make their case by working the press, not infrequently by leaking material that will embarrass or handcuff their nominal superiors.
Sometimes, the military strikes preemptively, attempting to influence decisions not yet made. A classic example occurred in 1993: Led by General Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior uniformed leadership mounted a fierce and very effective campaign to prevent President Bill Clinton from acting on his announced intention to allow gays to serve openly in the military. Powell and his confreres prevailed. A humiliated Clinton beat a hasty retreat and, thereafter, took care not to court trouble with an officer corps that made little effort to conceal its lack of fondness for him.

A more recent example occurred just a year ago. With President Obama agonizing over what to do about Afghanistan, The Washington Post offered for general consumption the military’s preferred approach, the so-called McChrystal Plan. Devised by General Stanley McChrystal, who had been appointed by Obama to command allied forces in Afghanistan, the plan called for a surge of U.S. troops and the full-fledged application of counterinsurgency doctrine—an approach that necessarily implied a much longer and more costly war.

The effect of this leak, almost surely engineered by some still unidentified military officer, was to hijack the entire policy review process, circumscribing the choices available to the commander-in-chief. Rushing to the nearest available microphone, members of Congress (mostly Republicans) announced that it was Obama’s duty to give the field commander whatever he wanted. McChrystal himself made the point explicitly. During a speech in London, he categorically rejected the notion that any alternative to his strategy even existed: It was do it his way or lose the war. The role left to the president was not to decide, but simply to affirm.

The leaking of the McChrystal Plan constituted a direct assault on civilian control. At the time, however, that fact passed all but unnoticed. Few of those today raising a hue-and-cry about PFC Bradley Manning, the accused WikiLeak-er, bothered to protest. The documents that Manning allegedly made public are said to endanger the lives of American troops and their Afghan comrades. Yet, a year ago, no one complained about the McChrystal leaker providing Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership with a detailed blueprint of exactly how the United States and its allies were going to prosecute their war.

The absence of any serious complaint reflected the fact that, in Washington—especially in the press corps—military leaks aimed at subverting or circumscribing civilian authority are accepted as standard fare. It’s part of the way Washington works.

Which brings us to the present and to what is stacking up to be an episode likely to reveal a great deal about how much or how little actual civilian control currently exists. In adopting the McChrystal Plan, Obama added this caveat: U. S. troops will begin withdrawing from Afghanistan by July 2011. Before the president or anyone in his administration had explained exactly what that July 2011 deadline signifies, General McChrystal departed the scene, having violated the dictum that calls on senior officers to sustain, in public at least, the pretense of respecting civilians.

To replace McChrystal—and to forestall the growing impression that things in Afghanistan are falling apart—Obama appointed General David Petraeus, an officer possessing in abundance the finesse and political savvy that McChrystal lacks. Having now sacked two successive commanders in Afghanistan, Obama can hardly afford to fire a third, least of all someone of Petraeus’s exalted stature. It would be akin to benching Tom Brady or trading Derek Jeter. You might be able to pull it off, but not without paying a very severe price. You might even find yourself out of a job.
Within the past week, complaints dribbling out of Petraeus’s headquarters in Kabul—duly reported by an accommodating press—indicate growing military unhappiness with the July 2011 pullout date. Now, Petraeus himself has begun to weigh in directly. This past weekend, he launched his own media campaign, offering his “narrative” of ongoing events. Unlike the ham-handed McChrystal, who chose a foreign capital as his soapbox, Petraeus sat for a carefully orchestrated series of interviews with The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NBC’s “Meet the Press,” each of which gratefully passed along the general’s view of things.

In the course of sitting for these interviews, Petraeus placed down a marker, one best captured by the headline in the Times dispatch: “Petraeus Opposes a Rapid Pullout in Afghanistan.” Or, as The Daily Beast put it, adding a twist of hyperbole, Petraeus told “David Gregory that he has the right to delay Obama's 2011 pull-out target for troops in Afghanistan." A bit over the top, but you get the drift.

Dexter Filkins of the Times interpreted Petraeus’s comments as “a preview of what promise[s] to be an intense political battle over the future of the American-led war in Afghanistan.” The operative word in that statement is “political,” with the stakes potentially including not only the ongoing war, but an upcoming presidential election.

At the center of that battle will be a very political general, skilled at using the press and with friends aplenty on Capitol Hill, especially among Republicans. To have a chance of winning reelection in 2012, Obama needs to demonstrate progress in shutting down the war. Yet it is now becoming increasingly apparent the general Obama has placed in charge of that war entertains a different view.

One, but not both, will have his way. Between now and July 2011, when it comes to civilian control, even the folks in Peoria will have a chance to learn what the civics books leave out.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and author of Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War.

*The Supreme Court takes a lot of time to reach decent decisions on these issues – it is borderline ineffectual - and still hangs by a hopefully remaining 5-4 thread on the issue of torture

**As the reviewer Gary Bass, an international relations professor at Princeton, concludes:

"Bacevich, in his own populist way, sees himself as updating a tradition — from George Washington and John Quincy Adams to J. William Fulbright and Martin Luther King Jr. — that calls on America to exemplify freedom but not actively to spread it. It isn’t every American’s tradition (and it offers pretty cold comfort to Poles, Rwandans and Congolese), but it’s one that’s necessary to keep the country from going off the rails. As foreign policy debates in the run-up to the November elections degenerate into Muslim-bashing bombast, the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich."

Bacevich is a conservative (I need to emphasize again, there is something deeply authoritarian, imperial and anti-conservative in what is called in the mainstream press today "conservative"). His son gave his life for his country in Iraq. Yet even now, the Times spectrum of allowable opinion cannot quite say directly what Bacevich says, cannot imagine even in words what turning away from the military-industrial complex might mean. But that is I am afraid the only hope and not just for America. It would take a very substantial and serious movement from below to make this possible.

***The situation gets worse and worse; the baiting gets louder and louder; the argument for Rahm Emmanuel–Obama style policies thinner and thinner. There are at least some things, reviving the economy, getting out of massively destructive and losing wars, on which Obama needed to, needs to be fiercer.

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