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Is David Petraeus a “Lying Liar” About the Drawdown?

"Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" was former non-Sen. Al Franken's 2003 examination of the lies and distortions of right-wing pundits and politicians. Such a book

“Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” was former non-Sen. Al Franken’s 2003 examination of the lies and distortions of right-wing pundits and politicians.

Such a book, if it were written today, should certainly include a fair and balanced look at some of the lying liars still running our foreign policy: in particular, at Mr. David Petraeus. (Mr. Franken might not be the best candidate for writing such a book today, given that he voted recently against Senator Feingold’s amendment requiring the president to establish a timetable for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as Democratic leaders like Senator Durbin supported Feingold’s amendment.)

Harsh words about Petraeus? Yes. Justified? Absolutely.

Consider: Petraeus has been leading a campaign of “domestic information operations” to browbeat Congress and the American people to accept limiting the size of, and possibly even a delay of, the drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan in July 2011 that President Obama promised when he acceded to the military’s demand for a “surge” of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan last fall.

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In a recent interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Petraeus ” implied that he might recommend against any withdrawal of US forces next summer, causing the White House to reaffirm its commitment to the July 2012 deadline in response, saying, “The date is not negotiable.”

“Certainly, yes,” [Petraeus] said when the show’s host, David Gregory, asked him if, depending on how the war was proceeding, he might tell the president that a drawdown should be delayed.

These words make Petraeus a “lying liar.” Because asking for more time if the “surge” didn’t work within 18 months is exactly what Petraeus promised not to do when the “surge” was decided.

As Newsweek reported, in an excerpt from Jonathan Alter’s book “The Promise” (all emphasis mine):

Obama was moving … toward conclusions and eventually presidential orders. This would not be a five- to seven-year nation-building commitment, much less an open-ended one. The time frame the military was offering for both getting in and getting out must shrink dramatically, he said. There would be no nationwide counterinsurgency strategy; the Pentagon was to present a “targeted” plan for protecting population centers, training Afghan security forces, and beginning a real – not a token – withdrawal within 18 months of the escalation.

On Sunday, November 29, having made his decision, the president decided to hold a final Oval Office meeting with the Pentagon brass and commanders in the region who would carry out his orders. He wanted to put it directly to the military: Gates, Mullen, Cartwright, Petraeus and national security adviser Jim Jones, without any of the others. Obama asked Biden to come back early from Thanksgiving in Nantucket to join him for the meeting.

As they walked along the portico toward the Oval Office, Biden asked if the new policy of beginning a significant withdrawal in 2011 was a direct presidential order that couldn’t be countermanded by the military. Obama said yes.


Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said.

“Yes, sir,” Mullen said.


The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. “I’m not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don’t agree with me that we can execute this, say so now,” he said. No one said anything.

“Tell me now,” Obama repeated.

“Fully support, sir,” Mullen said.

“Ditto,” Petraeus said.


If conditions didn’t stabilize enough to begin an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces (or if they deteriorated further), that would undermine the Pentagon’s belief in the effectiveness of more troops. The commanders couldn’t say they didn’t have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did.

As far as I am aware, Petraeus has never disputed Mr. Alter’s account of these events.

And as far as I am aware, no reporter has asked Petraeus during his current media tour about the contradiction between his current advocacy for delaying the withdrawal and his “Yes, sir” under explicit questioning that he would not ask for more time. I look forward to being corrected on this point.

No doubt, some will respond cynically to the blatant contradiction between what Petraeus is saying now and what he said in November. “So, Petraeus is a lying politician – what else is news?” But the point is that while Petraeus acts like a lying politician, he is treated by the mainstream media as if he were beyond politics, above criticism, merely a professional military man giving his neutral, unbiased, impartial professional military advice. That lack of scrutiny makes Petraeus a more dangerous liar than a politician.

A friend claims he has a reliable method for getting kicked off a jury. When the judge asks him if he is more likely to believe the testimony of a policeman over that of any other citizen, my friend will say that he is less likely to believe the testimony of a policeman, explaining that policemen, compared to other citizens, are almost never prosecuted for perjury, so they have less disincentive to lie under oath, and a person evaluating a policeman’s testimony compared to other testimony should take that into account.

The same considerations apply to Petraeus’ treatment by the media. Because they subject him to less scrutiny than they do to ordinary politicians, even when he is making political statements – and the decision to withdraw or not to withdraw troops is fundamentally a political decision, not a military one – Petraeus has less disincentive to lie than other politicians.

This week, the number of US deaths in the Afghanistan war since President Obama took office surpassed the number of deaths under President Bush (download a web counter here; spread the news here.)

US Deaths in Afghanistan: Obama vs Bush. Click here to learn more.

This should be the occasion for a fundamental rethink of what we are doing in Afghanistan, including a debate on establishing a timetable to complete a military withdrawal. The last thing we need to be doing now is handing over decision making to an unelected leader named Petraeus. If his clear statement in November that he would not ask for more time cannot now be trusted, why should we now trust anything else he has to say about questions that are fundamentally political, especially the drawdown?

Meanwhile, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting is appealing to NBC to have a guest on “Meet the Press” to talk about the war besides Petraeus and his disciples. You can support FAIR’s effort here.

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