Moveon.org’s memorable and controversial September 2007 ad, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” looks more prescient by the day. It was recently revealed that Petraeus’ August 2010 claims about the level of success against the Taliban in Afghanistan, based on the kind of “kill and capture” figures that the military once eschewed after Vietnam, were dishonest in the extreme. The data he presented to the public gave further credence (if it were needed) to Moveon’s assertion that “General Petraeus is a military man constantly at war with the facts”.
In brief, Petraeus claimed in August and again in December of last year that the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan was making strong headway. His proof? The very large numbers of insurgents captured and killed, (4,100 and 2,000 respectively) in the second six months of 2010. What he didn’t share was the fact that 80% of those captured were released within days on account of their innocence, begging the question of how many of those killed were similarly blameless, and the victim of trigger-happy U.S., NATO and Afghan military and security services.
Several nights in U.S. or Afghan custody is unlikely to make friends of the hapless civilians who fell afoul of an incompetent military and intelligence campaign, and is just one of many factors likely to contribute to our inability to extricate ourselves from what has become an absurdly unnecessary war.
But Petraeus is working in a favourable political climate (and one in which there are no consequences for negligence, incompetence or malice). Though he remains an irritant to the White House and Congressional Democrats, he has also become an excuse, both for the cowardly Obama administration and the Republican Congressional leadership. And, as we saw on Monday, for those Republicans who are competing to replace Obama in 2012.
Although most of the candidates discussed the need to get our soldiers home as soon as possible (toadying remarks at odds with other public statements—think of Romney’s suggestion that we are at war with militant Islam, or New Gingrich’s call for a “Long War”), there was widespread agreement that our war in Afghanistan, nearly 10 years old, is a necessary one, and that the President should defer to the wishes of the commanders on the ground.
It is this deference which has become an unconstitutional threat to our practise of foreign policy, subverting the foundational premise that civilian leadership is forever paramount. It is a deference which absolves our elected civilian leadership from what is unquestionably their responsibility to set policy around moral goals that make long-term sense for our country.
Our military commanders, in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan, have proven themselves to be blinkered, short-termist and quite frankly untrustworthy. They take an inexcusably narrow view of the long-term significance of undertaking military action and blatantly ignore the diplomatic, humanitarian, social and economic costs of waging the wars which they argue, all the while, is so very central to our national well-being.
They, and the political leadership that has opted to write them blank cheque after blank cheque, show what is either an appalling ignorance of or a criminal indifference to the historical circumstances of the countries in which they wage war. They ignore the context of their invasions, and choose to play to a gallery of right-wing, xenophobic extremists and to the weapons and security industries which have made a killing (quite literally) from Bush’s and Obama’s wars.
It is perhaps understandable, if deplorable, that the military would take a narrow view of international policy, given both its specialisation in armed conflict and its historic role in promoting the military industrial complex that is helping to bankrupt our country. What is not understandable is that our civilian leadership, which has the bird’s-eye view necessary to make solid calls about the direction of policy, have chosen to abdicate this responsibility and to turn it over, wholesale, to the national security apparatus which has mired us in immoral, destructive and costly wars for decades, and which evinces a paranoia so devoid of empathy that it begins to replicate the despicable regimes which it is supposedly overthrowing.
In any case, the result of this abdication of responsibility is an international and military policy that is made along technical rather than moral lines. With the military left to call the shots, it becomes all but a given that war is the logical policy to follow. So the debate, which should begin by questioning that key premise (that war is necessary and even logical in these instances), becomes a series of silly debates about which of the Pentagon’s in-vogue panaceas should be used to wage war abroad.
It was no surprise that the Bush Administration followed this approach. But that Obama has embraced it shows the extent to which he has largely abandoned principles in his execution of foreign policy, and is instead taking the most politically expedient route possible. Sadly, this route, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan and elsewhere, will have the effect of drawing the U.S. deeper and deeper into negative relations with people around the world and will, in common with Petraeus’ “Catch, Count, Release and Lie” strategy for inventing victory in Afghanistan, do far more harm than good.
Of all the people aspiring to take the oath of office in January of 2013, Ron Paul alone calls for an immediate withdrawal from our military commitments in South Asia and the Middle East. But Paul ascribes to an immoral social and economic doctrine which fetishises the free market and takes a heartless view of collective social and economic responsibility.
If Obama is all that progressives have to work with in 2012, we are in dire shape indeed. The candidate who hurtled to national political prominence thanks to his stinging critique of Bush’s wars will, if he is not careful, soon be joining Petraeus on the list of civilian and military leaders who have betrayed the public and imperilled our well-being. We can only hope that others will continue to press for an end to the war that has consumed the lives of U.S. and Afghan citizens, and has exhausted our treasury for far too long.