Is Congress afraid of Gen. David Petraeus? If not, why did its members run around like panicked turkeys in a rain storm to defend a four-star general from a few liberal Democrats at MoveOn.org? Before the “Betray Us” flap established MoveOn’s bona fides, the outfit was little more than a fundraising adjunct to the Democratic Party. What else but fear could induce a Democratic Congress, with a mandate to end the war, to vote three to one to shield an eminently political general and stalwart administration supporter from the rough and tumble of American political discourse?
At the beginning of this year the Republican leadership in Congress used a willing Petraeus to lobby Congress to support the troop “surge.” In February, before departing for Iraq, Petraeus entrenched himself in Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office. Senators were then brought from the Senate floor for a little face time with the general. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s tribute to the general’s powers of persuasion was particularly pithy: “He’s the Gen. Grant of the surge,” Graham said, perhaps forgetting that Grant’s deputy, William Tecumseh Sherman, burned South Carolina’s capital to the ground back in 1865.
In fact, David Petraeus has long been a willing participant in the administration’s efforts to put a positive spin on the Iraq war. Just six weeks before the last presidential election, on Sept. 26, 2004, Petraeus penned an opinion piece for the Washington Post, proclaiming “18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress."
"Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.
"The institutions that oversee them are being reestablished from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward, leading their country and their security forces courageously in the face of an enemy that has shown a willingness to do anything to disrupt the establishment of the new Iraq."
Obviously, like the rest of the administration’s spinmeisters, Petraeus was completely wrong, and Iraq has continued its descent into chaos. But what really disturbed me was Petraeus’ transparent attempt to influence the outcome of the 2004 election by painting an optimistic picture of the situation in Iraq.
Petraeus’ activities do make one wonder about the role of the uniformed services in the American political process. Did Adm. Ernest King lobby Congress before the Marine landings at Guadalcanal? Did Gen. John J. Pershing try to convince a select group of senators about the wisdom of the Meuse-Argonne offensive? Lobbying would have been as unnecessary as it would have been distasteful to earlier generations of admirals and generals. In fact, Petraeus’ efforts are reminiscent of Gen. William Westmoreland’s attempts to sell the Vietnam War to the American people. For example, in 1967 Westmoreland spoke of the “repeated successes” of the American-supported South Vietnamese army, claiming “The strategy we’re following at this time is the proper one” and “is producing results.”
The reality is that the White House picked Petraeus to lead the troop surge, a strategy cooked up at the American Enterprise Institute, because he is politically reliable. There is, after all, widespread acknowledgment that the surge is not going to get the United States out of Iraq any time soon. Many senior officers, including Petraeus’ predecessor in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, opposed the surge, arguing that a greater U.S. presence would further enflame Iraqi nationalism and keep the Iraqi government dependent on foreign troops.
If 130,000 troops have been unable to broker a political settlement between the warring factions in Iraq, it seems unlikely that 160,000 will succeed in doing so. At bottom, the surge is a strategy only in the sense that it aims to postpone the day the Iraq adventure is written off as a failure until the Bush administration is out of office. The president’s “Plan for Victory” announced a couple of years ago at Annapolis has morphed into a Petraeus-led scheme to pass this mess along to the next administration.
The White House wanted Petraeus to sell the surge because Americans still respect their armed forces. The Bush administration finds its public credibility on the war near zero, having been completely and disastrously wrong about everything in Iraq for the past five years. When the administration speaks about Iraq, the only folks still listening also believe in the Rapture, post on FreeRepublic, and/or tune in to Rush Limbaugh.
Last month Petraeus returned to Congress to make his much-heralded report on progress in Iraq. Petraeus testified that “the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met” and that ethnic violence had been reduced. But left unsaid was that the disintegration of Iraq has accelerated on the general’s watch. The Sunnis of Anbar province have been happy to cooperate, for the moment, with American forces while they take the opportunity to expel their Shia neighbors. The Shia of Anbar are fleeing to Baghdad, while the middle-class Sunnis of the capital decamp for Jordan and Syria. Four million Iraqis 15 percent of the population are now displaced.
When Petraeus appeared before Congress in September, he sought to boost his independence and credibility by claiming his report on the surge had not “been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or Congress.” These protestations of honesty have been heard before, perhaps most memorably in Colin Powell’s speech before the UN Security Council about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. when he stated “every statement I make today is backed up by sources.”
As Bush uses Petraeus to prolong the agony in Iraq, the military becomes the administration’s water-carrier as well as its spear-thrower. Congress seems to be quite willing to accept the military’s new role and to continue to abdicate its responsibility. Senators Lieberman and McCain, for example, have gone so far as to write in the Wall Street Journal that “the U.S. footprint [in Iraq] will no doubt adjust. But these adjustments should be left to the discretion of Gen. Petraeus, not forced on our troops by politicians in Washington.” So much for congressional oversight.
Congress seems to fear above all else being tagged with failure to support the troops. Two points: First, there is no way the Army in Iraq is going to run out of bullets and gasoline and be left at the mercy of the insurgents. If Congress refuses to fund the war, the troops will have to come home. Second, Congress has no more obligation to continue to finance the Iraq war than it does to keep funding Blackwater’s or Halliburton’s contracts. If Congress really wanted to support the troops, it would end Bush’s fool’s errand of trying to bring democracy to Iraq and bring them home.
Under the Constitution, which every federal employee from the president downward swears to “uphold and defend," the uniformed services make war at the discretion of the American people exercised through their elected representatives in the House and Senate. Perhaps Congress needs to be reminded that under the American system of government the armed services exist to serve the American people. The American people do not exist to serve and fund the armed services or the huge panoply of arms makers and other Pentagon contractors that have grown so influential in American society.
Congress’ rush to defend Petraeus from MoveOn’s jibe is even more remarkable given the less-than-flattering way Petraeus has been described by his immediate superior, CentCom commander Adm. William Fallon. It has been widely reported that Fallon described Petraeus during their first meeting as “an ass-kissing little chickensh*t.” Might the admiral’s description inform our view of Petraeus’ service to the Bush administration?