Authors: Tom Engelhardt
Tags: #Current Affairs, #QuarkXPress, #ebook
You no longer needed to be a retired military officer to offer play-by-play commentary on and analysis of our wars. Now, at certain moments, the main narrators of those wars turned out to be none other than the generals running, or overseeing, them. They regularly got major airtime to explain to the American public how their wars were going, as well as to expound on their views on more general issues. This was something new. Among the American commanders of World War II and the Korean War, only Douglas MacArthur did anything faintly like this, which made him an outlier (or perhaps an omen) and in a sense that’s why President Harry Truman fired him. Generals Eisenhower, Patton, Ridgeway, and others, did not think to go on media tours touting their own political lines while in uniform.
Admittedly, Vietnam War commander general William Westmoreland was an early pioneer of the form. He had, however, been pushed onto the stage to put a public face on the American war effort by President Lyndon Johnson, who was desperate to buck up public opinion. Westmoreland returned from Vietnam in 1968 just before the disastrous Tet Offensive for a “whirlwind tour” of the country and uplifting testimony before Congress. In a speech at the National Press Club, he spoke of reaching “an important point where the end begins to come into view,” and later in a televised press conference, even more infamously used the phrase “the light at the end of tunnel.” Events would soon discredit his optimism.
Still, we’ve reached quite a different level of military/media confluence today. Take the two generals fighting our Afghan and Iraq Wars in mid-August 2010: General Petraeus and General Ray Odierno.
Having spent six weeks assessing the Afghan situation and convinced that he needed to buy more time for his war from the American public, Petraeus launched a full-blown, well-organized media tour from his headquarters in Kabul. In it, he touted “progress” in Afghanistan, offered comments subtly but visibly at odds with the president’s original July 2011 drawdown date, and generally evangelized for his war. He began with an hour-long interview with Dexter Filkins of the
New York Times
and another with Rajiv Chandrasekaran, national editor of the
These were timed to be released on August 15, the morning he appeared on NBC’s Sunday political show
Meet the Press
. (Moderator David Gregory traveled to the Afghan capital to toss softball questions at Washington’s greatest general and watch him do push-ups in a “special edition” of the show.) Petraeus then followed up with a Katie Couric interview on
CBS Evening News
, as part of an all-fronts “media blitz” that would include Fox News, AP,
blog, and in a bow to the allies, the BBC and even NATO TV, among others.
At almost the same moment, General Odierno was ending his tour of duty as Iraq War commander by launching a goodbye media blitz of his own from Baghdad, which included interviews with Christiane Amanpour of ABC’s
, Bob Schieffer of CBS’s
Face the Nation
, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, CNN’s
State of the Union
, and the
New York Times
, among others. He, too, had a policy line to promote and he, too, expressed himself in ways subtly but visibly at odds with an official Obama position, emphasizing the possibility that some number of U.S. troops might need to stay in Iraq beyond the 2011 departure deadline.
As he said to Schieffer, “If [the Iraqis] ask us that they might want us to stay longer, we certainly would consider that.” Offering another scenario as well, he also suggested that, as Reuters put it, “U.S. troops . . . could move back to a combat role if there was ‘a complete failure of the security forces’ or if political divisions split Iraqi security forces.” (He then covered his flanks by adding, “but we don’t see that happening.”)
In February 2009, less than a month after Obama took office, Odierno was already broadcasting his desire to have up to 35,000 troops remain in Iraq after 2011, and at the end of 2009, Secretary of Defense Gates was already suggesting that a new round of negotiations with a future Iraqi government might extend our stay for years. All this, of course, could qualify as part of a more general campaign to maintain the Pentagon’s 800-pound status, the military’s clout, and a global military presence.
Pentagon foreign policy is regularly seconded by a growing cadre of what might be called military intellectuals at think tanks scattered around Washington. Such figures, many of them qualifying as “warrior pundits” and “warrior journalists,” include: Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security and Petraeus adviser; former U.S. Army officer Andrew Exum, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, founder of the Abu Muqawama website, and a McChrystal adviser; former Australian infantry officer and Petraeus adviser David Kilcullen, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security; Thomas Ricks, formerly of the
, author of the bestselling Iraq War books
, Petraeus admirer, and senior fellow at the same center; Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, the man Gates credited with turning around his thinking on Afghanistan and a Petraeus hiree in Afghanistan; Kimberley Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War, an adviser to both Petraeus and McChrystal; Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution; and Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and another Petraeus as well as McChrystal adviser.
These figures, and numerous others like them, have repeatedly been invited to U.S. war zones by the military, flattered, toured, given face time with commanders, sometimes hired by them, and sometimes even given the sense that they are the ones planning our wars. They then return to Washington to offer sophisticated, “objective” versions of the military line.
Toss into this mix the former neocons who caused so much of the damage in the early Bush years and who regularly return at key moments as esteemed media “experts” (not the fools and knaves they were), including former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer III, and former senior adviser to the CPA Noah Feldman, among others. For them, being wrong means never having to say you’re sorry. And, of course, they and their thoughts are dealt with remarkably respectfully, while those who were against the Iraq War from the beginning remain the rarest of commodities on op-ed pages, as sources in news articles, and on the national radio and TV news.
This combined crew of former warriors, war-zone bureaucrats, and warrior pundits have been, like Odierno, stumping for a sizeable residual U.S. military force to stay in Iraq until hell freezes over. They regularly compare Iraq to postwar South Korea, where U.S. troops are still garrisoned nearly sixty years after the Korean War and which, after decades of U.S.-supported dictators, now has a flourishing democracy.
Combine the military intellectuals, the former neocons, the war commanders, the retired military-officer-commentators, the secretary of defense, and other Pentagon civilians, and you have an impressive array of firepower of a sort that no Eisenhower, Ridgeway, or even MacArthur could have imagined. They may disagree fiercely with each other on tactical matters when it comes to pursuing American-style war, and they certainly don’t represent the views of a monolithic military. There are undoubtedly generals who have quite a different view of what the defense of the United States entails. As a group, though, civilian and military, in and out of uniform, in the Pentagon or in a war zone, they agree forcefully on the need to maintain an American global military presence over the long term.
Other than Robert Gates, the key figure of the moment has clearly been David Petraeus, who might be thought of as our Teflon general. He could represent a genuine challenge to the fading tradition of civilian control of the military. Treated as a demigod and genius of battle on both sides of the aisle in Washington, he would have been hard for any president, especially this one, to remove from command. (Obama, of course, finally “removed” him in 2011 by appointing him CIA director.) As a four-star who would have to throw a punch at Michelle Obama on national television to get fired, he had significant latitude to pursue the war policies of his choice in Afghanistan. He also has—should he care to exercise it someday—the potential and the opening to pursue much more. It’s not completely farfetched to imagine him as the first mini-Caesar-in-waiting of our American times.
As yet, he and other top figures may plan their individual media blitzes, but they are not consciously planning a media strategy for a coherent Pentagon foreign policy. The result is all the more chilling for not being fully coordinated, and for being so little noticed or attended to by the media that play such a role in promoting it. What’s at stake here goes well beyond the specific issue of military insubordination that usually comes up when military-civilian relations are discussed. After all, we could be seeing, in however inchoate form, the beginning of a genuine Pentagon/military production in support of Pentagon timing, our global military presence, and the global mission that goes with it.
In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, you can see that Pentagon version of an American foreign policy straining to be born. In the end, of course, it could be stillborn, but it could also become an all-enveloping system offering Americans a strange, skewed vision of a world constantly at war and of the importance of planning for more of the same. To the extent that it now exists, it is dominated by the vision of figures who have been deeply immersed in the imperial mayhem that our wars created, have left us armed to the teeth and flailing at ghosts and demons, and are still enmeshed in the process by which American money has been squandered to worse than no purpose in distant lands.
Nothing in the record indicates that anyone should listen to what these men have to say. Yet nothing in the record indicates that Washington won’t be all ears and the media won’t remain an enthusiastic conduit for whatever they say we must do, no matter how steep the price.
In 2011, we were treated to a “debate” in Washington in which only one question was on the table: how much of the federal budget do we cut?
The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives originally picked $40 billion as its target figure for cuts to the as-yet-not-enacted 2011 budget. That was the gauntlet it threw down to the Obama administration, only to find its own proposal slashed to bits by the freshman class of that body’s conservative majority. The upstarts insisted on adhering to a Republican Pledge to America vow to cut $100 billion from the budget. With that figure on the table, pundits were predicting widespread pain in the land, including the possible loss of at least seventy thousand jobs “as government aid to cops, teachers, and research is slashed.”
In the meantime, the Obama administration offered its own entry in the cut-and-burn sweepstakes. Its plan called for ending or trimming more than two hundred federal programs in 2012. It also reportedly offered cuts adding up to $1.1 trillion over a decade and put in place a “five-year freeze on domestic programs [that] would reduce spending in that category to the lowest level, measured against the economy, since President Dwight D. Eisenhower left office in 1961.”
It all sounded daunting, and the muttering was only beginning about “entitlement” programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—that had yet to be touched.
Which reminds me: Didn’t I mention Afghanistan?
If so, how fortunate, because there’s a perfectly obvious path toward that Republican goal of $100 billion. If we were to embark on it, there would be even more cuts to follow and—believe it or not—they wouldn’t be all that painful, provided we did one small thing: change our thinking about making war.
After all, according to the Pentagon, the cost of the Afghan War in 2012 will be almost $300 million a day or, for all 365 of them, $107.3 billion. Like anything having to do with American war-fighting, however, such figures regularly turn out to be undercounts. Other estimates for our yearly war costs there go as high as $120 to $160 billion.
And let’s face it, it’s a war worth ending fast. Almost a decade after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. military is still fruitlessly engaged in possibly the stupidest frontier war in our history. It’s just the sort of conflict that has historically tended to drive declining imperial powers around the bend.
There’s genuine money to be slashed simply by bringing the troops home, but okay, I hear you. You live in Washington and you can’t bear to give up that war, lock, stock, and barrel. I understand. Really, I do. So let’s just pretend that we’re part of that “moderate” and beleaguered House leadership and really only want to go after $40 billion in the federal budget.
In that case, here’s an idea, We’ve been training the Afghan military and police forces for almost a decade now, dumping an estimated $29 billion plus into the endeavor, only to find that, unlike the Taliban, our Afghans generally prefer not to fight and love to desert. What if the Obama administration were simply to stop the training program? What if we weren’t to spend the $11.6 billion slated for 2011, or the up to $12.8 billion being discussed for next year, or the $6 billion or more annually thereafter to create a security force of nearly four hundred thousand Afghans that we’ll have to pay for into eternity, since the Afghan government is essentially broke?
What if, instead, we went cold turkey on our obsession with training Afghans? For one thing, you’d promptly wipe out more than a quarter of that $40 billion the House leadership wants cut and many more billions for years to come. (And that doesn’t even take into account all the savable American dollars going down the tubes in Afghanistan—a recent report from the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction suggested it adds up to $12 billion for the Afghan army alone—in graft, corruption, and pure incompetence.)