Paris, September 28, 2010 – A splendid and courageous new book by Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University (and for many years previously, the U.S. Army) describes with lucidity the degree to which the power of the American presidency over war and peace has been weakened in our day, and in important respects superceded. (Washington Rules, Metropolitan Books, New York.)
One might call this a silent coup against the presidency, but a coup implies intention: a responsible actor who sets the coup d’état into action for a defined purpose. The argument Bacevich makes implies that a coup can be institutional or intellectual, and come from outside as well as inside government. Its characteristic is to create a situation in which a president is no longer free to act as he might wish, because all of the doors except one have been closed.
The most commonly cited foreign example of this is the German imperial general staff’s war plan in 1914, a meticulously set out schedule for mobilization of the army and its reserve components in order of the troops’ units and training preparations, integrated with the transport programs prearranged with the railroads, and the logistical arrangements to be set in motion, all of this assuming that the enemies would be France and Russia. France, the main enemy, was to be dealt a crippling blow, and slow-mobilizing Russia dealt with at leisure.
When Germany’s initial enemy in 1914 proved to be Russia (Serbia's ally), Germany (to oversimplify) concluded that Russia's ally, France, would inevitablybe drawn into the crisis, and felt compelled by its mobilization schedules to invade France – by way of neutral Belgium, thereby bringing Britain into the war.
Bacevich writes about the American Strategic Air Command, as hyper-organized by Gen. Curtis LeMay, with an initial mission in 1948 to deter Soviet attack on the U.S., using 29 wartime B-29 bombers, only half of them operational, and the handful of nuclear bombs the U.S. had managed to manufacture. By 1970, LeMay’s SAC was set to deliver more than ten thousand nuclear attacks across the entire Soviet bloc.
What use could a sane American president make of that force? (One remembers Peter Sellers, as U.S. President in “Dr. Strangelove,” informing his Soviet counterpart that a nuclear attack was under way, saying, “But Dimitri! How do you think I feel?”
When Barack Obama was elected president with a pledge to fight the “right war” in Afghanistan he undoubtedly expected Defense Secretary Robert Gates to set out a range of options from negotiations with the Taliban to nuclear war, with comprehensive analyses. Instead it would seem he was presented one plan, already in operation, of troop “surge” as in Iraq, to be followed by “counterinsurgency” as set forth by the general commanding, David Petraeus – heavily publicized as a dramatic new war-winning strategy.
Could he refuse? The Republicans were against him, the Pentagon contemptuous of a military innocent -- a former “community organizer” and “civil rights lawyer.” The press was in full cry for victory in Afghanistan. Obama would have risked a lynch mob at the White House.
He had, in the phrase, been “set up.” But not by his enemies, or military putschists, or a cabal of neo-conservatives, but by the very nature of American government today and the natural workings of the Pentagon, the forces of Washington politics, and the demands of the press.
Something else that set him up, and is likely to keep him at the mercy of Pentagon and press, is a largely uncomprehending but compliantly patriotic public. Tea Pot sentiment does not extend to “defeat.” The American political and policy class is now convincing itself that the United States is engaged in “the long war” – the perpetual war against fanaticism, extremism, and the threat to America that Sharia law soon will govern its law courts (as Karl Rove warns), and that the wild Taliban will stalk American streets .
General David Petraeus made his reputation by reviving classic anti-insurgent tactics for Iraq, and convincing his superiors and the public that they had succeeded. President Obama validated this by withdrawing all but 50,000 U.S. troops (while introducing mercenaries into Iraq in equivalent number to the soldiers withdrawn). In Afghanistan Petraeus reintroduced his counterinsurgency program, this time into a nationalist insurgency -- in which, more than a year after that White House meeting, there is no evience of U.S. victory. The conflict now is being redefined as the “long war” against non-western world radicalism, where victory (democracy) is sure but remote.
The war is a task of civilization (the new Pentagon plan is implicitly colonial). Its method is shamelessly taken from Vietnam – winning hearts and minds. Petraeus’ successor as commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Levanworth, Lieutenant General William Caldwell, says “The margin of victory will be measured…by the allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations.” Petraeus himself is quoted in Bob Woodward’s latest book (Obama’s War, Simon & Schuster): “I don’t think you win this war. That is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives, and probably our kids’ lives.”
Why should this be so? But this will undoubtedly be the message Petraeus gives Obama at the supposedly decisive strategy conference planned for December – that the “real war” has all along been that war for permanent world order we’ve heard about before, a condition for American security now and into an endless future. The generals set him up to choose their plan for victory in Afghanistan. Now they are setting him up for its defeat.
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