American Caesar’s Ghost

We are witnessing what a military takeover of a superpower looks like in the new American century. David Petraeus became the most dangerous American general since Douglas MacArthur when George W. Bush announced that his "main man" would decide when, how, and if an Iraq troop drawdown would occur, giving Petraeus unilateral control of U.S. foreign policy. In the summer of 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama started talking about a 16-month withdrawal deadline and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that sounded about right, you could almost hear Petraeus screeching What a world! What a world! from Baghdad to Washington. If you listened closely, you also heard the propaganda campaign to sell America on an endless occupation of Iraq click into high gear.

On Feb. 2, foreign policy analyst Gareth Porter revealed that in a Jan. 21 meeting, Petraeus, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were unable to dislocate President Obama from his 16-month redeployment policy. Porter also reported that a group of senior retired officers were preparing to support Petraeus, Gen. Ray Odierno, and their allies by mobilizing public opinion against Obama’s decision. I estimated that support to be part of the larger information campaign that was an integrated effort of the surge strategy from the outset.

D-Day of the latest phase of that information campaign arrived on Feb. 8 when Pulitzer Prize-winning Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks launched a series of TV interviews and Washington Post articles to promote his new book, The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. It’s not pleasant to call Ricks out for prostituting his credentials, but you can’t sleep in a general’s tent for years the way Ricks has and pretend not to be a camp follower. Ricks has become for Petraeus what Ned Buntline was to Buffalo Bill Cody: his official legend-maker.

In his 2006 book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003-2005, Ricks painted Petraeus as the only division commander who got it right in post-invasion Iraq. By January 2007, when Petraeus became the new commander of forces in Iraq, Ricks described him in an interview as a "force of nature," and recalling the sight of the general doing one-arm push-ups with teenage privates sent Ricks into a breathless arrhythmia. With The Gamble, Ricks promotes Petraeus to five-star deity. Both Brainiac and action figure, Super Dave defies the establishment and changes the course of mighty strategies to save America from the agony of defeat in Iraq. He’s got a Ph.D. from Princeton, he wears Kevlar, he’s a complicated man – but no one understands him but Tom Ricks, can you dig it? By the time you finish The Gamble, you’ll pray on your knees that Dave Petraeus runs for president in 2012.

Ricks used a crate of lipstick to make Petraeus’ sidekick, Gen. Ray Odierno, look presentable in The Gamble. He savaged Odie in Fiasco: ox-like Odierno is "confused by criticism" that his 4th Infantry Division, the "worst outfit" in theater at handling prisoners and civilians, is a virtual corps of "recruiting sergeants" for the insurgency. Odierno himself denies an insurgency is in progress, and he is the epitome of the dysfunctional leader who doesn’t want to hear the "bad stuff." But in The Gamble, Odierno has experienced an "awakening." It is Odierno, more than anyone else, who is responsible for the surge’s success. "White House aides and others in Washington … had nothing to do with developing" the way the surge was executed. Odierno made all those decisions. You can trust Ricks on that score because he got the information straight from source: Odierno.

In fact, almost the entirety of Ricks’ surge saga is told from the perspective of Petraeus, Odierno, and the rest of the surgin’ safari. If Ricks picks up another Pulitzer for The Gamble, the inscription should read "best stenography." Petraeus and Odierno are assisted by crafty retired Army general Jack Keane. Big Jack wields his mighty influence to break down the doors of the Washington bureaucracy, and he helps his protégés maneuver around their chain of command to place their surge concept before young Mr. Bush himself. The three wise warriors vanquish a host of fakes, liars, fumblers, and meanies and put their enlightened counterinsurgency scheme to work in Iraq, so gosh, we can’t just give up now that things are going so good. Well, better. Sort of.

In his book, his Post columns, and his interviews, Ricks manages to run through the gamut of neocon talking points on why we still need to stay the course, a compendium of doublethink mantras that in real-speak boil down to "Buy our war or we’ll shoot this soldier’s dog" and "Don’t forget to be afraid of Iran." At the same time, remarkably, Ricks generates a mountain of fog in an attempt to cover the neocons’ tracks.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Ricks absolved the neocons, saying they get "too much credit and too much blame" for Iraq. Nothing was the neocons’ fault, really. It was that mean old Dick Cheney who duped the public into supporting the war, and that grouchy old Donald Rumsfeld who ran the war so badly. Never mind that Cheney and Rumsfeld were charter members of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), the neocon think-tank that first publicly called for an invasion of Iraq in early 1998. Ricks makes a single passing mention of PNAC in The Gamble. That’s a stunning omission when you consider that along with Cheney and Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Scooter Libby, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, and many other PNACers also held key positions on the Bush administration’s Iraq policy team. Eliot Cohen is a featured player in The Gamble, a key figure in the selling of the surge and, according to Ricks, the man who told Bush he should make Petraeus the top commander in Iraq. Not once does Ricks note that Cohen is a luminary in the neoconservative constellation and that, like Cheney and Rumsfeld, he was a founding member of PNAC.

Also noteworthy is Ricks’ glaring omission of any reference to "Rebuilding America’s Defenses," the September 2000 PNAC manifesto that delineated the foreign policy the Bush administration would adopt in whole. Unfinished issues from Desert Storm, it said, provided the "immediate justification" for an invasion of Iraq, but the need to establish a large, permanent military footprint in the geostrategic heart of the oil-rich Gulf region transcended "the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." Then 9/11 gave the neocons the "new Pearl Harbor" they needed to launch their scheme, and the rest is history – as rewritten by the likes of Tom Ricks, who is now abetting them in pursuit of their original purpose.

As is the case with all revisionists, you’ll find grains of truth along the path of Ricks’ narrative, just as you’ll find grain in every pile of horse manure. The only honest thing you’ll find picking through Ricks’ prose, though, is the insanity behind the argument for staying in Iraq.

The real secret of Petraeus’ "success" at counterinsurgency is payola. As commander of the 101st Airborne in Mosul, "he bought everybody off." The enemy "was just biding its time and building capacity, waiting him out." When Petraeus left Mosul, it went up for grabs. As top commander in Iraq, Petraeus bought everybody off again, making "a lot of deals with shady guys" who are "just laying low," so we can never leave, or the whole country will go up for grabs like Mosul did.

Odds are things will be worse if we leave than they were under Hussein, Ricks told NBC’s Chris Matthews. Hussein was a toothless tyrant, but now that Petraeus has "armed everybody to the teeth" it’s too dangerous to get out. We’ve made the Iraqi security forces strong enough that they might attempt a coup if we’re not there to stop them. The surge may have averted a civil war, but one colonel tells Ricks he doesn’t think "the Iraqi civil war has been fought yet," so we have to stick around so we don’t miss all the fun. As Iraq becomes more secure, it moves backward. There’s a "long-term trend toward increasing authoritarianism," so we have to stay in Iraq so things don’t go back to the way they were under Hussein, even though, as Ricks just told us, things were better under Hussein than they are now.

Ricks says the surge is a strategic failure because it didn’t bring about the unification government it was supposed to produce. But that’s okay, because an analyst Ricks knows says "power-sharing is always a prelude to violence," so we have to stay in Iraq to make sure we don’t achieve our strategic objective, which will be easy because "the whole notion of democracy and representative government in Iraq" was "absolutely ludicrous” from the get-go.

If you’re thinking Petraeus was plotting all along to create a situation we couldn’t extract ourselves from, you’re right. As Ricks notes, Petraeus needed time "not to bring the war to a close, but simply to show enough genuine progress that the American people would be willing to stick with it even longer."

Even Ricks seems uncertain that we’ve seen genuine progress; maybe we’ve actually just "poured more gas on the fire," he thinks, and even though the surge is a failure, its "attitude is right" so it was "the right step to take," and we should continue to support U.S. presence in Iraq because we’ll be there a long time whether we support it or not.

As Ricks explained to David Gregory on Meet the Press, Petraeus and his henchmen have Obama over a barrel. If Obama continues to stand up to them, they’ll accuse him of betraying the troops because of a campaign promise he made to get the peace poofter vote. If things go the way Ricks predicts, the president will fold, the military oligarchy will consolidate its hold on American political power, and the neocons will live to make other people’s sons fight another day because they conned Tom Ricks into covering for them.

How sad it is to see that Thomas E. Ricks, dean of the Pentagon beat, has been pants-down, bent-over-the-table seduced by the neoconservative cabal. He is as mad as they are, and as madly in love with their eternal crusade in the Middle East as he is with David Petraeus.

Author: Jeff Huber

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (retired), was a naval flight officer who commanded an aircraft squadron and was operations officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the carrier that fought the Kosovo War. Jeff earned a master of arts degree in post-modern imperialism at the U.S. Naval War College. His weekly satires on U.S. foreign policy high jinks are archived at his blog, Pen and Sword. Jeff's critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a lampoon of America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now. Jeff lives with dogs in a house by the beach on Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, and in the summer he has a nice tan.