Just when Barack Obama’s presidency was drowning in BP’s crude oil, a megalomaniacal U.S. Army general called Stanley McChrystal, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, did him several huge favors.
He took the spotlight off the Gulf of Mexico.
He gave Obama a marvelous opportunity to act the decisive commander in chief, packing his insubordinate general into retirement.
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By committing political suicide, he created a vacancy for the one general the right wing can’t fault Obama for putting in his place — Gen. David Petraeus.
Weeks before McChrystal and his drunken retinue poured their contempt for Obama and his top Afghan advisers into the notebook of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, the writing was on the wall. A steady stream of leaks from the Pentagon registered dissatisfaction among the top Pentagon brass at the way the war in Afghanistan was going.
Last year, McChrystal courted immediate dismissal by publicly daring Obama to deny him the extra troops he demanded to instrument the counterinsurgency strategy he pledged would vanquish the Taliban, win over the Afghan people and allow Obama to promise liberal critics of the Afghan War he’d have the troops out by 2011.
Obama had the opportunity then to emulate Harry Truman’s famous firing of World War II hero Gen. Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. But Obama blinked. He gave McChrystal almost exactly what he wanted.
The American public got the impression that McChrystal, leading the Afghan mission, but answering to Gen. Petraeus, now in charge of Central Command, was going to follow the latter’s famous “surge” in Iraq. This was essentially a PR operation, aimed at declaring victory and getting the hell out. Petraeus is touted as America’s only success story in that doomed venture and his national standing is high.
Afghanistan is a very different proposition. McChrystal came from five years of running the Pentagon’s death squads — Joint Special Forces Command — killing or kidnapping America’s enemies in the Great War on Terror. But now he was trying to introduce doctrines of counterinsurgency, formulated in the Counterinsurgency Manual for the U.S. Army, assembled by Petraeus.
It does not require the intellect of Sun Tzu to see that you do not win the hearts and minds of a civilian population by bombing their wedding parties, raping their daughters, torturing their sons and, where deemed necessary, reducing their villages to rubble. COIN put these simple thoughts into military language.
McChrystal duly issued stringent rules of engagement, crimping the eagerness of field officers to whistle up close air support to drop tons of high explosive on suspect neighborhoods. These restrictions drew strident protests from his forces, as endangering their lives. McChrystal said there was no other option. But then came McChrystal’s showcase operation in Marjah earlier this year, designed to drive the Taliban out of this rural district.
As the high command back in the Pentagon studied the intelligence reports, they found that it hadn’t been long before the Taliban, prudently absenting themselves during the Marjah offensive, were back in business. With the Pentagon background briefers whispering to The New York Times and Washington Post that the COIN strategy was misfiring badly, McChrystal put off a larger lunge into Kandahar until this autumn. The backstabbing didn’t stop.
For his part, Obama has been nervously eyeing his commitment to a 2011 withdrawal. The way things were going, withdrawal would simply mean “rout,” politically disastrous for Obama. To insist on an extension would land him in trouble with his liberal supporters in the run-up to a re-election bid in 2012. McChrystal and — far more subtly — Petraeus were already deploying politically for a ditching of the 2011 deadline. Furthermore, there was talk that Petraeus would soon retire from the Army and step into the race for the Republican nomination.
Then — a blessing from heaven for Obama — came the Rolling Stone story. McChrystal no doubt blames the Iceland volcano, which left him stranded in Paris, staying at the awful Hotel Westminster on the Rue de la Paix, sipping Bud Lite Lime beer in Kitty O’Shea’s, with his retinue, “Team America,” cavorting drunkenly on the dance floor and imparting to the delighted Rolling Stone reporter their utter contempt for their civilian and military superiors, expressed in language not far removed from Nicolas Anelka’s halftime verbal assault on French football coach Raymond Domenech: “Va t’enculer, sale fils de pute!”
How could McChrystal have been so stupid? Megalomania. A senior U.S. military commander has the powers and appurtenances of a Roman proconsul, of a Julius Caesar in Gaul. McChrystal had been successful in massaging the press with confidential briefings and seemingly total access. Talking to Rolling Stone, he probably thought this magazine deserved a more unbuttoned approach than The New York Times.
Less careful than the adroit Petraeus, he overreached himself, possibly because he insists on sleeping only four hours a night, running seven miles at dawn and eating one meal every 24 hours. (Petraeus has the same sort of Spartan life style. Rather than pour out indiscretions to a reporter, Petraeus passed out briefly in a Senate hearing two weeks ago, stating later that he’d been dehydrated.)
The White House pounced eagerly on the opportunity offered by Rolling Stone. Aside from everything else, it was a chance for the president, regarded by most Americans to have been a wimp towards BP, to act tough. Without Pentagon backing, McChrystal was a goner.
Now begins a delicate dance in what bids to be Act IV or even V in Obama’s foolish campaign commitment to nail al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Obama has staked all on Petraeus, who has accepted command of a mission doomed from the get-go. The war is unpopular. Though Americans are prepared to equate the Taliban with al-Qaida, they can’t really see the point of the war. It’s gone on for nine years. Two weeks ago, the Pentagon desperately re-floated a very old story that Afghanistan is rich in mineral resources, like lapis lazuli and lithium.
Will success, however contrived, propel Petraeus toward the White House in 2012 or 2016? Probably not. Americans honor warriors, but they elect men who prudently preferred to keep the home fires burning — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. There’s a precedent for Petraeus’ fainting fit. Julius Caesar famously suffered from blackouts. He crossed the Rubicon, but he didn’t survive long thereafter.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.
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