Sunday, February 15, 2009

American Caesar's Ghost

We are witnessing what a military takeover of a superpower looks like in the new American century. David Pertraeus 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 Nuri 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 February 2, foreign policy analyst Gareth Porter revealed that in a January 21 meeting, Petraeus, Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral 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, General 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 February 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 2005 book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 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 PhD 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’s sidekick, General 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 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’s 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 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, the neocon think tank that first publicly called for an invasion of Iraq in early 1998. Ricks makes a single passing mention of the 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 the PNAC.

Also noteworthy is Ricks’s 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.” 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’s narrative, just as you’ll find grain in every pile of horse manure. The only honest thing you’ll find picking through Ricks’s prose, though, is the insanity behind the argument for staying in Iraq.

The real secret of Petraeus’s “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 backwards. 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 says, 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.

UPDATE: Ward Carroll of Military.com, where I have contributed a weekly column for nearly three years, refused to run this essay.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.

75 comments:

  1. When most everyone in the US is bone-weary of our involvement in Iraq, you've got to hand it to Petraeus and Ricks for their undying enthusiasm for our ill-fated venture there.

    You've also got to hand it to Ricks for helping make Petraeus a legend for The Surge (Send in reinforcements? My, how innovative) and for buying off enemies.

    ReplyDelete
  2. While I'm not looking forward to the reign of Emperor Petraeus, at least these shenanigans fit nicely within the context of the Iraq hypothesis that I've always favored. That is, that the PNAC crowd has always intended for Iraq to be America's gas station of last resort. I can see where the generals might have a special motivation along these lines - tanks don't roll and jets don't fly without oil, after all.

    If Obama really wants out of Iraq, his best riposte to this PR assault would be to point to the staggering cost of the war and its effects on the economy. Or it would have been, if he hadn't already sold us so far down the river in the intergenerational debt department. If you're willing to pony up 9 trillion or so for banker bailouts and "stimulus," then what's another trillion or so for Vietnam, the sequel?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Russ and JP,

    Yes, everyone's weary of it, that's why jolly old Tom Ricks is just the guy to carry the message that they'll have to endure it forever.


    JP,

    Nail on head regarding the economy. Iraq just became chump change. But stand by for the next assault on social security.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thankfully for the USA, there are too many of us that could give a flying fart for what amounts to nothing more than Judy Miller Journalism wrapped up in cardboard. (If it made a bit of sense we might have not given a flying fuck... But I digress.)

    Anyways, your critique was worth the read. But I would say the material and the people involved deserved even more snark and mocking - just to be clear how trivialized they and their ideas should really be.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks, CM. One of my guiding principles is that in order for someone to get a public impaling, they not only have to merit one, they have to demand it.

    As you said, they must be exposed for the trivial humbugs they are.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  6. FairfaxFO12:38 PM

    Now what are the neocons going to do if Obama and State reveal that the Iranians love their children too?

    Next month, Brazil's Lula visits the White House at Obama's invitation. Lula is very keen on ending the embargo of Cuba. This could set the stage for more talks during April's Summit of the Americas. Those neocons better work overtime on how they are going to discredit OPEC's (possibly) next member nation.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Oh, they're working overtime, don't doubt that for a moment.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  8. "If you listened closely, you also heard the propaganda campaign to sell America on an endless occupation of Iraq click into high gear."

    Hmmm, I wonder why?

    Oy. When did I get so cynical?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Cynical: It's the new "realistic."

    ReplyDelete
  10. Jeff,

    Thanks for this post. Clear, concise and decisive. I have not had the opportunity to read the latest from Ricks yet, but it is unbelievable that he could not be bothered to connect up Eliot Cohen with the Neo-con/PNAC cabal.

    Then again, I suspect Ricks and Cohen are pretty tight buddies, them being respected authors of all things civil-military but (of course) never having served themselves.

    I said it once before and I will say it again. President Obama is fast approaching his MacArthur moment with General Dave, Admiral Mike and the rest of the star-wearing gang. They work for him or they don't. I have a feeling President Obama has more saavy and streetwise smarts in dealing with the flags than did Clinton in '93 - and he will not UNKNOWINGLY make the same mistake of rolling over and not even getting a reach-around as Clinton did. That said, one wonders if at the decisive moment, the other demands of the world (most notably the Depression) will prevent him from pulling the trigger. 'Cause any "MacArthuring" of General Dave will really ignite the whinny-ass titty baby party on the Hill. Way more than in '51 when Truman cashiered MacArthur (who had ZERO support from the Chiefs; unlike General Dave).

    SP

    ReplyDelete
  11. SP,

    Yep, the MacA moment approacheth.

    J

    ReplyDelete
  12. General Quarters9:50 PM

    Lordy. What would Zbigniew do?

    GQ

    ReplyDelete
  13. Um, arm the Russians and encourage them to invade Afghanistan again?

    ReplyDelete
  14. Ooopps. From an article by Mr. Porter, and IPS, appearing today in The Huffington Post.

    A field commander in Iraq, who spoke with IPS on the understanding that he would not be identified, asserted flatly that there is no greater risk associated with President Obama's 16-month withdrawal plan than with the 23-month plan, contrary to Petraeus and Odierno.

    The officer said that the U.S. military presence has already "passed the tipping point of diminishing returns" in relation to stability and security in Iraq. "The longer we stay now, the less we achieve," he said.

    Neither Petraeus nor Odierno has offered any public explanation for their argument that a 16-month drawdown plan would pose greater risk to stability and security than one lasting seven months longer.

    ReplyDelete
  15. And yet Ricks continues to quote Odierno as saying we need to keep at least 30 k troops there until 2015.

    Madness.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Anonymous7:00 PM

    There will probably be a troop withdrawal in Iraq; for the pre-surge, the surge and the post-surge in Afghanistan. The endless war cannot last. Of course we must first achieve victory in Iraq. "...One more such victory and we are undone...",Pyrrhus.

    ReplyDelete
  17. If we aren't undone already.

    J

    ReplyDelete
  18. Commander,
    I am shocked, shocked I say, that military.com has chosen to censer this article.

    For our edification and enjoyment, please post or comment on the recent
    adventures of the USS Port Royal.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Jeg,

    I'm probably less shocked than you are. Don't fret--this is featured today at Antiwar.com.

    I'm still shaking my head over Port Royal. That area has to be the best charted water on earth. My top guess is that they had a massive engineering casualty, lost propulsion and steering and electricity and drifted aground.

    Shame.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
  20. ozebloke5:40 PM

    Stellar work as always Commander. One tiny quibble?

    I'm pretty sure the NYT can't publish 6 months into the future. Didn't you mean Nov 08, not 09.

    You don't want to give military.com a reason to censor your work.

    Ooops - too late. They don't need a reason!

    Choking on smoke Down Under (what global warming?)

    Best Regards

    ReplyDelete
  21. So THAT's why he spiked it. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  22. Anonymous12:49 PM

    Jeff, re Port Royal. After having read your book Bathtub Admirals, it occurs to me that a-the Captain is incompetent b-that there was an incompetent navigator on board or c- that the OD was either drunk or very very tired and said turn starboard when he ment port, and that the EM involved either a-understood where they were and where the sandbar was and did nothing due to massive dislike of the command structure or b-were fairly new to their jobs and did not know the area or c-just plain screwed up.
    What odds on only the EM and others on the bridge taking the fall. I realize that the Captains career is over, even if he were not on the bridge.
    PS. I was never in the Navy, just the AF and the Army(12 years left as E-6) but have read many books about the Navy over the last 30 or so years, so have at least a minimum understanding.

    ReplyDelete
  23. We'll have to see what comes out of the inquiry. Something to keep in mind is that since the ship was just coming out of a yard period, the crew was likely rusty or inexperienced.

    Jeff

    ReplyDelete
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