According to NBC News and journalist Jonathan Alter in his book “The Promise,” President Barack Obama “dressed down” senior generals at the Pentagon for attempting in 2009 to “box him in” on troop levels in Afghanistan. The “exceedingly unhappy” president was in a “cold fury” at his generals for “speaking out of turn” before last year’s speech at West Point. Alter even suggests that American generals hadn’t been on the receiving end of such a serious tongue-lashing since President Harry S Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.
Is Obama the reincarnation of Harry “the buck stops here” Truman? Has he brought rebellious generals to heel? Evidence suggests otherwise. First, under Obama the U.S. military has gotten everything they could’ve possibly wanted, and more: rising defense budgets, more soldiers and Marines added to the ranks, and virtually uncontested control over American foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. All major weapon system acquisition programs are “full speed ahead,” the exception in this case — the F-22 Raptor — being a manifestation of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ determined opposition to the program, stemming in part from the Air Force’s truculent and tone-deaf demands for ultra-expensive air superiority fighters that are unneeded in America’s current war zones.
Second, no general of the power and popularity of MacArthur has been fired. On the contrary, Obama has empowered the generals favored previously by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, men like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. This is not to suggest Obama should fire either of these men; rather, it’s to point out that Obama has not yet taken the kind of strong (and, initially, wildly unpopular) stand Truman took in firing “the American Caesar” during the Korean War.
So, has Obama reined in his generals and humbled our military? Of course not. At a time of huge deficits and prolonged recession, Obama has further empowered our national military state. He has made no tough decisions to corral, control, or cut our military establishment. His decision to surge more troops to Afghanistan may have been resisted within progressive and anti-war circles, but it was hardly an unpopular decision within the military-industrial complex.
Indeed, the claim that Obama’s “dressing down” of his generals is the toughest talk these and previous star-wearing men have heard since Truman-MacArthur is ridiculous. Tell that to the generals who had to deal with the skeptical Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a former five-star general, in the 1950s; tell that to the generals who were constrained by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the generals who had their arms twisted by Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam, or to the generals on the receiving end of profanity-laden second-guessing by Richard Nixon. Even Jimmy Carter had the temerity to cut the entire B-1 bomber program, despite intense opposition by the U.S. Air Force (the B-1 was later restored under President Ronald Reagan).
To put it bluntly: During his campaign Obama talked about “change,” but with respect to our military and our wars, the only “change” since 2008 has been more military escalation, including more drone attacks in the Af-Pak war, as well as more military spending. Indeed, Obama vowed not to ask for “emergency” supplemental funding to pay for these wars, only to break that vow by asking this year for an additional $33 billion for Afghanistan.
Actions speak far louder than words: What we’ve witnessed from Obama is no “dressing down” of our military, but rather yet another ramping up.
This article has also been published on HuffingtonPost.