Duel of the Machiavellians: Obama vs. Petraeus

Duel of the Machiavellians: Obama vs. Petraeus

Tuesday, July 6, 2010 4:47 AM
From: “Stephen Sniegoski” 

    While Obama is often portrayed as a political neophyte finding
himself confronting situations that are way over his head, his choice of
General David H. Petraeus to replace General Stanley A. McChrystal was in
some ways a masterful political stroke, though it does not seem to have
achieved  all that might  have been intended.

Obama’s move has nothing to do with any effort to maintain a “winning”
strategy in Afghanistan.  No realistic person could even conceive of how the
US could “win” in Afghanistan.  In fact, it would not seem  that the central
purpose of Obama’s escalation of the US war in Afghanistan in 2009 had to do
with “winning,” either, since unlike his political predecessor, Obama
actually gives the appearance of knowing what is going on.  Rather, Obama’s
purpose is fundamentally a political one:  preventing, or at least limiting,
political damage from the war in Afghanistan. 

    Obama sees the political need  to maneuver between the positions of
the war hawks and the advocates of peace with whom he largely agrees.
Political considerations largely determine how Obama acts regarding
Afghanistan, and about almost everything else he does. (All successful US
politicians generally act in that manner.)  If he were to base his action on
his personal view of the merits of the issue,  it seems likely that Obama
would opt for peace and pull the troops out of Afghanistan.  As antiwar
critic Sheldon Richman writes in his article “Endless Occupation?” (June 29,
2010): “Obama presumably would like to get out – he can’t be thrilled about
presiding over America’s longest war – but the cross-currents may leave him
no choice but to tread water. The military wants to ‘win,’ whatever that
means, while the Right is ready to pounce on Obama as an appeaser of
terrorists if he acknowledges the reality of this inglorious war. (Al-Qaeda
has moved on.)”

Obama’s  right-wing critics constantly characterize his foreign policy as
one of weakness,  and it is this notion that Obama goes all out to dispel,
fearing that, if this view caught on among the general public, it would do
significant political harm to him among the moderate swing voters, upon
whose support he must rely.   On the other hand,  peace voters will continue
to support Obama even if he differs with their position at times, because
the Republicans advocate a harder-line war position, and voting for a
pro-peace minor party is generally considered a wasted vote.

Thus in the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama  held that it was necessary to
more vigorously prosecute the war in Afghanistan to offset  his reference to
Iraq as the wrong war, showing that he was not averse to using military
force per se.   And in his  escalation of the war in Afghanistan, Obama
seemed to be choosing a much safer target for his demonstration of strength
than the war hawks’ desired war on Iran. 

Just as Obama  intensified the war in Afghanistan to protect his own
political image, the purpose of his replacement of McChrystal by Petraeus is
also to serve his political interests.  The publicity given to the bombshell
article in the magazine “Rolling Stone” on McChrystal and his staff, with
their derogatory remarks about members of the Obama administration,  placed
the president on the horns of a  dilemma.  If he did nothing, allowing
McChrystal to remain as head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the media would
likely imply that he was weak and indecisive and thus incapable of leading
the military.

However, if Obama dismissed McChrystal, a noted expert in  counterinsurgency
warfare,  he would have been castigated for removing the best man for the
job in order to salve his own pride.  As conditions deteriorated further in
Afghanistan, as they are most likely to do, it would be Obama, not
McChrystal’s replacement,  who would bear the brunt of the blame.

The choice of Petraeus as McChrystal’s replacement was, or at least seemed
at the time,  a stroke of pure genius that solved this dilemma.  Petraeus,
who will step down from his higher position as commander of CENTCOM (United
States Central Command), was the only possible replacement who would not
seem to be less capable than McChrystal.  For Petraeus is widely credited
for solving what is generally regarded as a similar problematic  situation
in Iraq with the surge and is the author of the military’s current
counterinsurgency doctrine.  

Now those few who have actually studied the situation in Iraq know that
there has not been a real solution.  The rationale for the surge was that
improved security would provide the opportunity for the central government
in Iraq to work for national reconciliation among the major factions-Kurds,
Sunnis, and Shiites.  This  clearly did not take place. What the surge
actually achieved was temporary pacification-in large part due to the
bribing of Sunni sheiks to stop their attacks.  Serious ethnic and religious
tensions remain, which are apt to explode at any time,  and the level of
actual violence has recently been on the upswing.

In choosing Petraeus, Obama also may have also thought he had found a way to
derail a serious political rival.  Petraeus has looked like a possible
contender in the 2012 election.  By sending him to Afghanistan, Obama has
made his candidacy more difficult. In the words of commentator Tunku
“Obama has, at a stroke, taken Petraeus out of the 2012 presidential race.”

    Varadarajan continues: “Keep your friends close-and the competition
closer. There has been a buzz about Petraeus and the presidency since about
the fall of last year, and to many in the Republican Party-a party bereft of
ideas and credible leaders-the general has increasingly taken on the aspect
of a possible messiah. His impeccable military credentials, his undoubted
intelligence, his mastery of personal and professional politics . . . plus
his undoubted (if carefully tailored) conservatism have led many to see in
him a man who can take on Obama in 2012, and beat him. He is even the sort
of guy who’d allow the GOP to broaden its tent, drawing in ‘undecideds’ and
“Obama’s 2012 Power Play,”

It should be noted that Petraeus has support from both the Republican
Right–especially the neoconservatives–and from the general public. For the
neocons, Petraeus serves as a replacement for John McCain. Petraeus was the
recipient of  the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute’s highest
honor for 2010, the Irving Kristol Award.  There was a statement in a
military document  attributed to Petraeus that held that  Israel’s actions
were exacerbating American casualties in the Middle East, but neocon
stalwart Max Boot absolved Petraeus of any criticism of Israel in this
See Boot, “A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel,”

As Petraeus’ recently revealed email correspondence indicates, the general
had close ties to Boot, whom he relied upon to maintain a good relationship
with pro-Israeli Jewish Americans.  In an email to Boot, written after the
publication of Petraeus’ alleged statement about the negative impact of
Israel on US forces,  Petraeus asked: “Does it help if folks know that I
hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?  And that I
will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the
concentration camps.”  Boot, acting as if he understood the collective mind
of the American Jewish community,  assured Petraeus that this additional
obeisance was unnecessary.  It must be stressed that this correspondence
indicated that Petraeus’ has not only close ties to a neocon journalist but
also high political aspirations; and that he perceives the pro-Israel
American Jewish community to be very powerful politically.
Philip Weiss, “Petraeus emails show general scheming with journalist to get
out pro-Israel storyline,”

While Petraeus is close to neocons, his political strength stems from the
fact that, like Dwight D. Eisenhower,  he is seen to be above partisan
politics, as political commentator Peter Beinart has pointed out in his
article, “Petraeus for President?”

The Senate’s  unanimous vote on June 30, 2010, to confirm Petraeus as the
next commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan illustrates his widespread
support, which transcends political ideology.  This broad appeal
distinguishes Petraeus from leading Republican political figures such as
Sarah Palin, who have strong appeal on the Right, but little support, and
much opposition, beyond this ideological segment. 

But if Petraeus wanted to run for President, why didn’t  he just refuse
Obama’s offer to command the troops in Afghanistan and say that there was
more pressing work to be done at CENTCOM? In the military hierarchy, going
from CENTCOM commander, where Petraeus oversaw American forces throughout
much of the broader Middle East region,  to Afghan Theater commander was
technically a demotion.  But the war in Afghanistan is the major military
issue at this time.  And Petraeus’ heroic image makes him appear as far and
away the best man for the job.  If he rejected such an offer, Petraeus would
seem more interested in his own career than in the good of his country.
Such a refusal would undermine  his image as a self-sacrificing patriot, and
his presidential chances would be severely harmed, if not ruined.

Now, if everything goes according to form,  Petraeus is going to be too
occupied in Afghanistan  to be able to engage in the public self-promotion
that would be necessary to facilitate his run for the presidency.  And if
the situation in Afghanistan fails to improve dramatically, which is most
likely, Petraeus will lose the aura of a military genius, and his political
appeal will evaporate.  Moreover, the military’s current counterinsurgency
doctrine,  of which Petraeus is the author, would be shown to be ultimately
ineffective.   As the perceptive war commentators Robert Dreyfuss and Tom
Engelhardt observe: “Afghanistan is the place where theories of warfare go
to die, and if the COIN [counterinsurgency] theory isn’t dead yet, it’s
utterly failed so far to prove itself. The vaunted February offensive into
the dusty hamlet of Marjah in Helmand province has unraveled. The offensive
into Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a seething tangle of tribal
and religious factions, once touted as the potential turning point of the
entire war, has been postponed indefinitely. After nine years, the Pentagon
has little to show for its efforts, except ever rising casualties and money
“The President Chooses the Guru,”  June 28, 2010

Obama, on the other hand, would come out of the Afghan misadventure in the
best political shape possible, since it could be said that he did all that
was possible to snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat.
See Ditz, “Awash With Fictional ‘Success,’ Deployment Sets Petraeus Up for a
Big Fall”

In short, Obama has sent Petraeus out to fail, thus tarnishing the general’s
image of invincibility and also discrediting  the war in Afghanistan. For
having provided the proponents of military victory in Afghanistan with
additional troops, resources, and now the Napoleon of counterinsurgency,
Obama has given them more than  enough rope to hang themselves.  At the
point it became apparent to the great majority of the American people that
the US could not achieve victory in Afghanistan, despite the most strenuous
efforts, the ever-cautious Obama would see that it had become politically
safe to declare the war militarily unwinnable and seek some type of
diplomatic solution. That is probably something he has wanted to do all
along but feared doing when it was still possible that a substantial
proportion of the public would blame him for losing Afghanistan. At least,
that is how everything would work out if things went according to form.

Unfortunately for Obama, in Petraeus  he is dealing with a very politically
savvy individual, who knows above all else how to protect his own image.
Petraeus is simply too crafty to fall into this  trap. Just as he was smart
enough to make the surge in Iraq appear like a great success, he is showing
himself to be making every effort to  avoid the possibility of  taking the
blame for any failure in Afghanistan..  In his confirmation hearing,
Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee not to expect any  success
soon in Afghanistan.  Commentator Jason Ditz writes  that “the general seems
to be determined to downplay any hopes of a quick turnaround or even a
long-term turnaround of the disastrous war.”
In his prepared remarks for the committee, Petraeus stated: “My sense is
that the tough fighting will continue; indeed, it may get more intense in
the next few months.”

Although Petraeus professed support for Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, which
includes the July 2011 troop-withdrawal timeline, he essentially says that
there is not going to be much, if any, progress by that date and if the
United States wants to win it will have to maintain substantial forces there
for the long term.  While  Petraeus is too careful to explicitly attack
Obama’s July 2011 timeline, his view on the war is rendering it meaningless.
He has stated that “It’s important to note that July 2011 will be the
beginning of a process … not the date by which we head for the exits and
turn off the lights.”

Petraeus did not specifically state when the United States should exit
Afghanistan or even what progress would look like.  Consequently, there will
be no way to blame Petraeus for failure in Afghanistan because he has not
defined success.  In short, Petraeus provided a masterful demonstration of
the bureaucratic art of  pre-emptive CYA. 
Now Petraeus has certainly protected  himself from any possible blame but we
can wonder why members of the Congress should ever support such an undefined
mission, which would be somewhat like Congress providing billions of dollars
to fund a NASA manned mission to Mars without the head of NASA specifically
saying when and if  the red planet would ever be reached.

In the U.S. Senate’s whirlwind confirmation of Petraeus as commander of US
forces in Afghanistan, no member of the  self-styled  “World’s Greatest
Deliberative Body”  was able to transition from Petraeus’ testimony to
question the whole purpose of the  Afghan war.   If there are no concrete
benchmarks or an exit date,  what is the purpose for the US being there?
And how can it be determined whether the US effort is worth it?

Members of the US Senate Armed Services committee should have bombarded
Petraeus with these questions at his confirmation hearing, and not allowed
him to get away with his nebulous descriptions.  And there should have been
discussion of  these broad issues on the floor of the US Senate before the
final confirmation vote.  But none of this was done.  The members of the
Senate were too much in awe of Petraeus’ great stature, and too fearful that
anything they said might be interpreted as harsh questioning of the highly
esteemed military leader, which could do them political harm.  As national
security specialist Winslow T. Wheeler observes in his aptly titled article,
“General Petraeus and His Senate Vassals”:  “Basically it was a hearing
chaired by General Petraeus and attended by politicians supplicating him to
offer any response he might care to, preferably blessing the ‘questioner’
with either praise or agreement. It wasn’t oversight; it was bad theater.”

So Obama is in no better position than he was before the McChrystal affair.
As the war drags on interminably, it is Obama, not Petraeus, who will be
held responsible. If he were a real leader, Obama would be willing to take
the political risk for his decision on the matter of war, but he is
unwilling to do this.  General Petraeus, on the other hand, remains in a
position to grab the presidency in 2012, if Obama’s standing in the polls
does not improve.


Awash With Fictional ‘Success,’ Deployment Sets Petraeus Up for a Big Fall

Posted By Jason Ditz On June 25, 2010 @ 7:34 pm In Uncategorized | No

It may seem hard to believe at this point, but it wasn’t so many years ago
that Gen. David Petraeus was in very much the same position as Gen. Stanley
McChrystal found himself in. The public face of President Bush’s failing war
in Iraq, Petraeus’ popularity was plummeting, and his future was very much
in doubt.

By a stroke of good luck, Gen. Petraeus found himself credited with
“winning” the war in Iraq not through anything he did, but rather because
his disastrous tenure was so bloody and had driven so many Iraqis from their
homes that the secularly split neighborhoods had all but been emptied out
and, predictably, violence dropped.

It didn’t end the war, of course, and after a brief lull people started
moving back to these neighborhoods, and we are seeing once again that
violence is back on the rise in Iraq. The war that Petraeus “won,” at least
in the administration’s eyes, is still going on, and going badly.

But this isn’t about the myth of Petraeus’ first victory, an old story, but
rather President Obama’s selection of Petraeus as the new face of his own
primary war, in Afghanistan, where he is expected to take largely the same
strategy that didn’t really work in Iraq, and replicate the drop in violence
in Afghanistan.

It is not lost on many people that the war in Afghanistan is a very
different war than the one in Iraq,  but the reality is that the Obama
Administration has been trying to shoe-horn the Iraq strategy onto
Afghanistan since the president took office, escalating the war over and
over and watching with endless optimism as the conflict continues to get

But having gone from the failing general in Iraq to a modern day savior of
the endless warfare state, the myth of the general’s competence has landed
him into the most unenviable position possible, the commander of the Afghan
War, which is steadily spiraling out of control.

To make matters worse, there is no external savior for Petraeus this time.
The violence in Afghanistan isn’t a side effect of the American occupation
but something fueled directly by it and aimed directly against it. There is
no ethnic or sectarian divide that, through sheer disastrous failure, will
quiet down simply for lack of immediate proximity.

In fact the proximity problem has gotten worse over time, as the US adds
more troops in the areas with the most insurgents. The escalation plan would
also add Afghan forces to these areas, providing another target.

While the results of the Obama Administration’s strategy so far are pretty
clear, an ever worsening security situation, the plan remains unchanged, and
the hope that Petraeus can turn the situation around with more of the same
woefully misguided. The only question is how long the situation can continue
to worsen before people start to question why the so-called Petraeus magic
isn’t transferring to Afghanistan.

Article printed from News From Antiwar.com: http://news.antiwar.com

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Obama’s 2012 Power Play
by Tunku Varadarajan

The Daily Beast

Obama’s decision to replace Gen. McChrystal with Iraq war hero David
Petraeus was more than just a way to keep the Afghan battle on course. Tunku
Varadarajan on the president’s masterstroke.

Barack Obama, who has in recent days turned haplessness into an art form,
played a masterstroke today, making perhaps the canniest, wiliest, even
wisest decision of his generally rudderless presidency. I refer, of course,
to his appointment of David Petraeus to the Afghan war command, in place of
the Rolling-Stoned Stanley McChrystal. In doing so, Obama has, at a stroke,
taken Petraeus out of the 2012 presidential race.
  Keep your friends close-and the competition closer. There has been a buzz
about Petraeus and the presidency since about the fall of last year, and to
many in the Republican Party-a party bereft of ideas and credible
leaders-the general has increasingly taken on the aspect of a possible
messiah. His impeccable military credentials, his undoubted intelligence,
his mastery of personal and professional politics (you wouldn’t catch him
talking to Rolling Stone in a million years), plus his undoubted (if
carefully tailored) conservatism have led many to see in him a man who can
take on Obama in 2012, and beat him. He is even the sort of guy who’d allow
the GOP to broaden its tent, drawing in “undecideds” and independents.

This can no longer happen. And Obama’s brilliant move also preserves his own
Afghan war strategy (which is effectively a Petraeus-McChrystal strategy).
So, in throwing out the “McChrystal bathwater,” he has been careful not to
jettison the “policy baby.”

To those tempted to argue that Obama has now elevated Petraeus to
Eisenhower-like status, I’d point out that Eisenhower never ran for office
against a president who raised him up to the military apex. I have met
Petraeus, and had the chance to talk to him in an informal way, and I would
be flabbergasted if he would now contemplate a political run against a man
who has entrusted him with America’s most sensitive theater of war. Besides,
the job Petraeus is taking would normally be a two-year stint.

To those tempted to argue that Obama has now elevated Petraeus to
Eisenhower-like status, I’d point out that Eisenhower never ran for office
against a president who raised him up to the military apex.

So Obama has reason to be delighted with himself right now: He has sacked a
recalcitrant big-mouth; he has entrusted said big-mouth’s job to a certified
hero and military star; and he’s taken that star out of contention for 2012,
making his own re-election that much more likely, given the headless turkey
that is currently the GOP.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large
for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover
Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former
assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter

Petraeus for President?

by Peter Beinart

October 12, 2009
The GOP, torn apart by extremists, needs a hero to step up and lead the
party. Peter Beinart thinks General David Petraeus is a lot like Ike.

Remember last winter, when liberals were complaining that Barack Obama had
kept Bush family consigliere Robert Gates as his secretary of Defense and
named a John McCain buddy, General James Jones, as his National Security
Adviser? They’re not complaining now. Today, Gates and Jones are MoveOn’s
best friends, because they provide the political cover that Obama needs to
reject General Stanley McChrystal’s call for more troops in Afghanistan.
Imagine if Richard Danzig was Defense secretary and Susan Rice was NSC
adviser, as many had expected. Obama would have never dared send them out to
publicly slap down McChrystal, as both Gates and Jones have done. With
liberal civilians in key posts, Obama’s administration would have appeared
more dovish, which, ironically, would have made it harder for Obama to
actually do the dovish thing.

But as shrewd as Obama has been about the politics of national security, his
showdown with McChrystal still offers the GOP its best chance so far of
getting up off the mat. It’s worth remembering that the last time the
Republican Party was in this bad a shape, in the early 1950s, two generals
helped resuscitate it. The first was Douglas MacArthur, who in 1951 accused
President Harry Truman of appeasement for scaling back America’s objectives
in Korea. The confrontation cost MacArthur his job, but it cost Truman his
popularity. In the almost two years that Truman served as president after
firing MacArthur, his approval rating never reached 40 percent.

It’s worth remembering that the last time the Republican Party was in this
bad a shape, in the early 1950s, two generals helped resuscitate it.

There’s another analogy, however, that should worry Democrats even more: Not
between General MacArthur and General McChrystal, but between General Dwight
Eisenhower and General David Petraeus. Pundits have mused about the
Eisenhower-Petraeus comparison before, but the Afghanistan slugfest gives it
new relevance. In the late Truman years, MacArthur, Joseph McCarthy, and the
rest of the Republican right wing were a bit like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck
today. They succeeded in bloodying the Democrats and scaring the country
about overseas threats. But their overseas warmongering and domestic
radicalism made them too extreme to ever win national office themselves.

Ike was different. He exploited the right’s hysteria, and yet sailed above
it at the same time. He refused to condemn McCarthy, and implied that he too
believed that Truman’s containment policies constituted appeasement, but he
maintained his calm, soothing tone. As a war hero who stood apart from the
partisan brawling around him, he retained a personal brand far stronger than
either party’s.

As personalities, the syntax-mangling Ike and the self-consciously
intellectual David Petraeus don’t have much in common. But politically,
they’re in a parallel position. Today’s GOP has a right-wing base that can
damage Obama, but none of its favorites have a prayer of winning the White
House. The reason is that just like the Republican right of the early 1950s,
which kept insisting that the New Deal constituted socialism (or fascism),
today’s conservative activists have not accommodated themselves to some
basic shifts in public mood. Over the past couple of decades, the American
people have grown more pro-environment, more culturally tolerant, and more
suspicious of the unregulated free market, and yet the Republican Party has
responded with a series of litmus tests for its presidential candidates that
represent the political equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and
yelling “la la la, I can’t hear you.”

Confirmed by Senate, Petraeus Downplays War Expectations

Posted By Jason Ditz On June 29, 2010 @ 4:52 pm In Uncategorized | No

Less than one week after Gen. Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his command
over the Afghan War, his replacement Gen. David Petraeus was confirmed by
the Senate, while delivering prepared testimony promising little in the way
of changes and more violence ahead.

Perhaps the most troubling prediction from Gen. Petraeus was that the
violence was going to continue to rise in the months ahead, and with it the
casualties. The death toll for NATO troops in Afghanistan this month has by
far dwarfed the previous record, and at least 99 troops have been reported

Since his appointment by President Obama, Gen. Petraeus has been touted as
likely to turn the war around, despite any changes in specific strategy. So
far however, the general seems to be determined to downplay any hopes of a
quick turnaround or even a long-term turnaround of the disastrous war.

In fact over eight and a half years after the war began, Gen. Petraeus’ most
optimistic comment was to say that it was “possible” there would be some
progress made at some unspecified point in the future. Pentagon officials
had previously been claiming that some undetectable momentum changes were
already being made, as they attempt to convince Congress to pass another $33
billion in emergency funding for the conflict.

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