Neocons Return to War Debate With a Vengeance

Up until now, the neoconservatives within the national security establishment had been almost demure and decorous, content like cats to paw at the growing number of “isolationists” among the GOP coming out against the U.S. intervention in Libya and for a more rapid withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan.

But when President Obama announced his plan last week to bring home the 33,000 so-called surge troops by the summer of 2012, the sniping quickly turned into the kind of vanguard attack we’re more accustomed to. The neoconservative wing of the Republican Party—a stalwart civilian proxy of the military in Washington—will not relinquish its 10-year grip on the national security agenda willingly, and if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the scribbling of what will likely become the script for attacking Obama and any disobliging GOP contenders on foreign policy from here through the 2012 elections.

It’s not terribly original but it needn’t be—the meme has worked before: Obama is “pulling the rug” out from under “his commanders on the ground,” mainly Gen. David Petraeus, who has worked so bravely, so selflessly to turn things around in Afghanistan. Now, because of political considerations, Obama will put his re-election before victory. If that isn’t enough—the Afghan people will feel betrayed, and no doubt turn against International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) in the field, while the Taliban will take our “arbitrary date” for withdrawal and wait it out, before laying waste to all of Petraeus’ hard-fought gains.

Any Democrat—or Republican—who supports Obama’s recipe for defeat, or so it goes, will be tarred in much the same way.

Of course these talking points were already in development before the President’s 10-minute speech on June 22. There had been enough indication beforehand what Obama had in mind in regards to a steady reduction in troops, for which, according to all the polls, the American people are in clear favor. But that doesn’t matter, because the neoconservatives, aka the War Class, want endless military occupation in that corner of the globe, and the military—which began building eight additional major forward operating bases in Afghanistan only two years ago (coincidentally, at the same time Obama announced the July 2011 commencement of withdrawal)—appears eager enough to accommodate them.

The drumbeat began a few weeks ago, with Kimberly and Fred Kagan, stalwart American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hawks and consummate disciples of Gen. Petraeus, writing in The Wall Street Journal on June 6:

If Mr. Obama announces the withdrawal of all surge forces from Afghanistan in 2012, the war will likely be lost. Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and other global terrorist groups will almost certainly re-establish sanctuaries in Afghanistan. The Afghan state would likely collapse and the country would descend into ethnic civil war. The outcome of this policy would be far worse than Nixon’s decision to accept defeat in Vietnam, for it would directly increase the threat to the American homeland.

In fact, it would seem AEI has gotten quite the second wind from the prospect of an Obama “surrender” in Afghanistan. Keeping true to form, Danielle Pletka, AEI’s “vice president for foreign and defense policies,” recently took her inelegant switch blades to Pete Dominick, a comedian with liberal leanings who does a fairly comprehensive, three-hour daily political talk show on SiriusXM radio. He routinely interviews right-wingers, but Pletka, well, she’s in a league of her own. I’ve interviewed her before: she is invariably pleasant at first, but seems to lose interest in maintaining the facade, jerking quickly to condescension and intimidation as her preferred mode of communication. A real charmer.

For Dominick she was all of this after he had the audacity to suggest the military strategy in Afghanistan was not working and it was time to get out. After employing a bunch of Petraeus Power Points—“we’re now well on our way to victory, the surge has worked”—Pletka warned that “it can sure get a lot worse” if we leave, and that we cannot “abandon Afghanistan” to the Taliban. But unlike stealthier combatants, like say, Charles Krauthammer, Pletka embraces the cold-blooded attack:

“I have a lot of Afghan friends … but at the end of the day I don’t care very much about what happens in Afghanistan. We’ve got to ensure that it’s not going to become a congenial place for terrorists to operate” against U.S. interests, she charged. “What I care about is the American homeland and our nation’s security.”

Then, before repeating what has been the emerging trope in this withdrawal debate—that Petraeus has been successful in pacifying the southern region and needs time to work over “the east”—she does the unthinkable in the standard radio interview format: she cuts off Dominick and tells him he’s run out of time. “I gotta go,” she says, then hangs up (audio here).

Whew. Neoconservative patience, especially after the New Hampshire GOP debate, when half the candidates touted some degree of support for ending the war in Afghanistan, goes all downhill from there.

“There is a streak of isolationism in the Republican Party,” declared Krauthammer on Fox News June 15. “In fact, isolationism, historically, was more among the right than on the left.”

He practically called GOP presidential candidate Gov. Jon Huntsman—who has been, besides candidates Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, the most vociferous for getting out of the war—an opportunist.

“Huntsman, I think has made a strategic decision … if you are an antiwar Republican you are going to be a darling of the media and they are going to propel you into the national spotlight. I think this is a very smart tactical maneuver, but he is going to have to defend this.”

The isolationist charge was echoed last week by an increasingly unhinged Sens. John McCain, and Lindsey Graham—two of the most loyal, and powerful military surrogates in the congress today.

After the president’s speech last Wednesday, the attacks ramped up, with complaints that Obama wanted to “retreat”—as War Class maven Bill Kristol so artfully described on June 23—and tear troops away from their mission in the middle of “the fighting season.”

“There is real progress” in Afghanistan, exclaimed columnist Mark Thiessen on The O’Reilly Factor. “The problem is the President is pulling the rug out from under Gen. Petraeus. He (Petraeus) has a very clear plan. He has taken the (Taliban) strongholds away from the south” and now moving toward taking them away “from the east.”

“He’s got a plan.”

No doubt the War Class has its own plan—to focus its ire not only on Obama but on the renegade Republicans who could pose a threat by actually capitalizing on the war malaise so evident in public opinion. The cold hand of neoconservative influence on electoral politics may have already touched presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is now sending the classic mixed message as to how he is going to present himself on national security in the coming campaign season.

After saying in New Hampshire that he doesn’t think the U.S. should send troops to fight “a war of independence for another nation,” and that it’s “time for to us bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can” (as conditions allow), he admonished Obama’s plans just the same.

“We all want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we shouldn’t adhere to an arbitrary timetable on the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan,” he said in a post-speech statement.

“This decision (to leave) should not be based on politics or economics. America’s brave men and women in uniform have fought to achieve significant progress in Afghanistan, some having paid the ultimate price. I look forward to hearing the testimony of our military commanders in the days ahead.”

Romney knows very well that military commanders were in support for a much less ambitious time table and wanted closer to 5,000 rather 10,000 troop drawdown by the end of the year. It was later spelled out plainly in immediate reaction reports in the press.

From The Times of London June 23:

Senior military officials, including General Petraeus, the US commander in Afghanistan, are said to be dismayed at the scale of the cuts. They argued for a far more modest cutback of 3,000-5,000 troops, achievable by changing troop rotations.

A senior associate of General Petraeus said that the commander would never have advocated a larger-scale withdrawal and decried what he saw as Mr. Obama’s capitulation to public opinion over military needs. “This will put the mission at risk; this is bad news,” he told The Times. “The mission requirement hasn’t changed, so it means fewer troops will have to carry out the same roles and this will drive up casualties.”

Of course the Public Brass was much more subtle in its disdain. Petraeus, ever the politician himself, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Thursday that after “considerable” deliberation over the withdrawal schedule that included several options, the President decided on “a more aggressive formula in terms of the time line than what we had recommended,” but Petraeus would work to support and execute it nonetheless. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee that Obama’s timetable adds “risk” to the military mission—but that it’s “manageable.”

But this is all the War Class needed to finalize its boilerplate Plan of Attack, just in time to clash with Republicans taking a hard line against the war in Libya and even more rebellious elements calling for an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan.

GOP presidential contender Tim Pawlenty, not surprisingly, pushed the “listen to the commanders” meme immediately after Obama’s speech:

“This decision should be based on conditions on the ground and success,” Pawlenty said. “Not some vague notions of a responsible wind down and then jumping over what the real mission is now, which is stabilizing that country.”

Graham seemed more perturbed than ever after Obama’s remarks, suggesting to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “no politician,” not even Obama or Vice President Joe Biden, “has it right in terms of Afghanistan.” Only Petraeus knows the way out and the White House is getting in the way.

“Petraeus loses, Biden wins,” he said. “And I respect the vice president, but I think we have undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving this year is going to make this fighting season more difficult. Having all of the surge forces leave by next summer is going to compromise next summer’s fighting season.”

Ditto for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another stalwart pro-war politician who was co-opted early-on by the War Class:

“This is a part of the world where leaders always hedge their bets. Even the slightest impression that the United States is looking to get out is devastating. It is one of the reasons why Pakistan continues to undermine our efforts to target Al Qaeda,” he charged.

“It also discourages tribal leaders in Afghanistan from cooperating with us to defeat the Taliban, and it encourages the Taliban to keep on fighting.”

Right-wing bellwether Michele Bachmann, also running for president, waited a couple of days before issuing a statement on the president’s plan. Talk about “political calculations,” her remarks differ quite starkly from earlier comments in which she said she was “tired of Afghanistan” and wanted to “get (troops) out of there as soon as we can,” points out Here’s what she had to say Friday when reporters pushed her to comment on Obama’s speech:

“By undercutting our security objectives in Afghanistan with ill-advised time lines and accelerated troops withdrawals, President Obama apparently listened to his political consultants rather than his military commanders.”

Meanwhile, former Army officers at the military’s most influential civilian surrogacy, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), bolstered the War Class critique, suggesting, too, that Obama was undercutting Petraeus and the commanders “on the ground.”

From retired Gen. David Barno, senior CNAS fellow and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan:

President Obama’s long-anticipated speech outlining the specifics implementing the start of the drawdown in Afghanistan will ultimately please no one…

In Afghanistan and the region, observers will find precious little in the speech to reassure them about prospects for an enduring long-term U.S. commitment beyond 2014. On the military front, the president gave commanders impressive flexibility this year by linking the withdrawal of the first 10,000 troops of the surge to the year’s end. But he inexplicably removed all such flexibility next year by requiring the remaining 23,000 surge troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2012—necessitating their removal from combat at the height of the fighting season.

… [I]n the end, the key strategic issue for the United States will be whether America’s friends and adversaries around the world assess this speech an expression of U.S. resolve—or as the starting gun signaling a wider U.S. global retrenchment.

To which CNAS fellow Andrew Exum, also known as Abu Muqawama to the milblog community, twittered from “high in the Italian Alps”—“If anyone is wondering, my thoughts on the speech (surprise!) mirror those of LTG Dave Barno.”

No, it is not a surprise, nor will it be a surprise when in the coming weeks and months the War Class and the military brass start echoing each other even more succinctly on some variation of the “pulling the rug out from under General Petraeus” meme. Along with Obama, they will go after their own, most likely those Republicans running for president and more specifically Huntsman, who is gaining traction in the press, and unlike many of his Republican colleagues, says Obama isn’t accelerating the withdrawal fast enough.

In other words, get ready to rumble.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.