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President Obama Cannot Let Himself Be Blackmailed by the Generals
Posted by Guy Saperstein on September 23rd, 2009

Afghanistan policy has been under review by the Obama Administration and a classified recommendation written by General Stanley McChrystal apparently was submitted to Obama on August 3 recommending increasing troops in Afghanistan.  Two days ago, the report was leaked to the press.  This leak could not have been inadvertent, as the leaked copy had been heavily redacted, with classified materials deleted.  It is hard to see this as anything but an attempt to box in Obama and put pressure on him to agree to more troops, whether any good strategy supports investing more troops, or not.  But before anyone, let alone President Obama, starts bending to military pressure, let’s ask how much deference U.S. generals deserve.

We all respect the commitment and sacrifice of American soldiers—they are doing difficult and dangerous work few of us would want to do and they do it under terrible conditions, tremendous pressure and great threat to life—but should the military establishment and its misadventures be beyond criticism?  Georges Clemenceau, former French Prime Minister and the French War Minister who negotiated the Versailles Treaty ending WWI, once said, “War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military.”  He had watched Allied generals misperceive and misunderstand strategy in WWI and become bogged down in deadly trenches for four years, killing millions in the process.  Do our generals deserve any more respect?  Is their advice any better?

For most of the past 60 years, the American military mostly has been unprepared for the conflicts America has gotten into, starting with Korea.  Fifteen years later, the military was planning to fight a land war with the Soviet Union, but not a jungle war in Vietnam; it lacked the training and equipment for jungle combat and it had no clue either how to fight an insurgency or how to contest the political aspects of the war, which ultimately led to American defeat.  Thirty years later, after not anticipating or thwarting 9/11, the military still was equipped mainly to fight a massive land war in Europe, not an insurgency either in Iraq or Afghanistan and again has failed to comprehend the political dimensions of those wars.

We have spent, and continue to spend, a gigantic [and unsustainable] portion of the nation’s treasure on defense—in the process crowding out important social services—but has the National Security State and over-reliance on the military provided security?  It has built hugely expensive weapons systems which have little or no relevance to current threats, yet it failed to anticipate and avert 9/11; it has failed to bring to justice its chief architects; it has failed to devise an effective response to Islamic extremism; it has failed to provide security in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the expenditure of $3 trillion [when downstream costs are considered]; and, it has abandoned America’s reputation for being a just nation which adheres to law and ideals.  If this were a business, would anyone invest in it?

The competence level of the American military is not something to be emulated; it is closer to the level of General Motors  and Wall Street.  Generals Patreaus and McChrystal are no more worthy of admiration than the progression of incompetent CEOs who drove GM into the ground and the crooks who pilfered the public with exotic financial instruments for their short-term profit.  Their advice, which has been wrong in the past about Afghanistan, should neither be accepted at face value nor allowed to trump President Obama’s political judgments about the value and costs of continuing to wage war.  Military advice has the same relationship to good advice as military music has to good music.

We need to start measuring the military by the same standards we measure other costly investments:  Is it working?  Is it effective?  Is it making the world more safe—or less?  Is America safer because we spent $3 trillion in Iraq??

The questions we need to be asking about Afghanistan are not included in General McChrystal’s call for a “new strategy,” but they include the following:  Why are we fighting the Taliban?  The Taliban never attacked America and no one suggests they have the capacity or interest in attacking the American homeland; they are fighting Americans because Americans occupy their country.  General Patreaus acknowledges al Qaeda left Afghanistan long ago, but in the absence of al Qaeda we have simply substituted the Taliban as our enemy without asking whether this makes any sense.  And if the argument is that we have to stay in Afghanistan so that al Qaeda doesn’t return, does that mean forever—at $100+ billion per year?  What will it ultimately cost and how many American men and women will die for this mistaken policy?

Does it mean we should invade and occupy all other nations where al Qaeda might pop up?  Already, al Qaeda is operating in Somalia and Indonesia, and should we do what about all the many weak and failed nations which potentially could be launching pads for terrorism—do we invade and occupy them all, as well?  With the American economy faltering and falling deeper into debt to its most important strategic rival, China, can we afford the luxury of fighting expensive wars wherever terrorism potentially might arise?  What are the real strategic threats to the U.S. and is spending hundreds of billions more in Afghanistan getting in the way of more important security issues?

The Pentagon is now trying to muscle President Obama into supporting the same costly policies which have failed in Afghanistan for eight years.  He should be reminded that Abraham Lincoln made a career of firing ineffective generals and got reelected running, ironically, against one of the generals he had fired.  President Truman fired one of the most popular generals in American history [MacArthur] and got reelected shortly thereafter.  President Obama cannot allow himself to be blackmailed by midgets and incompetents like McChrystal—particularly in defense of a war which already has become very unpopular.  Once that kind of blackmail works, it never stops.

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  1. [...] President Obama Cannot Let Himself Be Blackmailed by the Generals posted on September 24th, 2009 at Rethink Afghanistan [...]

  2. kotkinjs1 says:

    Good analysis that brings up important questions. However, I think the 'blame' is a little misdirected. I don't think the military nor its generals are responsible for the current situation….at the *grand strategic* level. The tool of the military is only used as an extention of national policy. The military is only trying to win in a situation into which they were placed for the ultimate desires of the national command authorities' overall strategy. That this strategy or policy is faulted or even failed is not because of 'the competence level of the US military.' Neither GENs Petreus nor McChrystal asked for the Army to be sent to Afghanistan. Don't look to the military to place blame; I'd look to the 'experts' in the think tanks and defense contractors that provide the advice the politicians give too much credence to. Follow the money and the relationships in and around Foggy Bottom and you'll find how the decisions get made. It's not the Pentagon calling those shots, it never has been (in the context of Afghanistan) nor should it be….as Clausewitz would tell us.

  3. mrs_cervantes says:

    If you could actually grasp the concept that the military is not paid in “treasure” (as hard as that might seem) you might get SOMEWHERE in this blog. If you would research the fed a little more you might understand the national debt just a little bit.
    If you could stop comparing our MILITARY to GM AND WALL STREET you might see the actual sacrifice. My husband is being sent there to defend you and all you can write is this piece of slimy liberal garbage?
    Not many understand the war out there. I don't expect people to. Hell, even I struggle and I am surrounded by military! The point is this…there are people that have YOUR back. They HAVE made you safer I can GUARANTEE you that.
    The military could not “avert” 911 because it was an attack made from hijacking a plane…but who took action?? YOU??? No, didn't think so. Do you know there are famlies that anticipate the arrival of these MEN to come home? You, sir, may not understand the concept of being a man-but maybe one day-when you grow up…you might.
    There is a lot of subjective material in this blog spoken as fact…I suggest stepping off your incredibly ignorant “high horse” and actually speaking and THANKING these men and women who fight for our country. There are MANY people who are OBLIGATED and yes I mean OBLIGATED to fight in this war due to their commitment to serve. Many won't even argue with it but there are some who are stepping up and saying “its illegal”. I bet that tickles your fancy huh?
    Do you want to know a litte FYI about the military? Their boss is the president of the United States of America…(crazy right?) Yes, thats right…Obama is their boss. What Obama says goes. You don't want Obama to fall for McChrystals “tactics”? Maybe you should take some classes and educate yourself. The people out there express the needs of the military, they then convey it to the president himself. After consideration, he speaks with Congress and the senate. There are MANY people involved with the whole process.
    Wanna know another little interesting tidbit? Military gets paid pretty much the same amount whether in the states or in Afghanistan! WOW! Want to know something else rather interesting? Some people deem it worthy to take down one of the most elite terrorist organizations in the world. (just in case you were wondering I was referring to the Taliban) Some people think that its wrong to allow these people to bully other people (even though they have nothing to do with it! Crazy, I know!) Some people don't see that as a price tag. Some people might see that as necessary change.
    You're just…ugh. You should re read your article with caution…I did. Twice. I must say, I've never read such garbage to the end so kudos to you.

  4. notsleepy says:

    Mrs Cervantes,
    The constitution provides that the President is the Commander in Chief…that's not Crazy. You do respect the office of the President I presume. Its your patriotic duty. He was duly elected, remember. What he says goes…he is the boss and the military reports to him.
    The Americans in Afganistan are foreign invaders. They were not invited and they are not welcome…thus the deaths of our soldiers. Would you allow foreign troops in our country…fully armed, uninvited?
    I didn't think so.
    Those troops in Afganistan are no more defending America than you can defend your home from Russian burglars by sending your son to Russia.
    Our Troops were sent there by a President and they have to go because thats the way the system runs. The Nazi's had the same system…you have to serve. In a perfect world the man who declares war on another ought to lead the charge.
    Please step into an Afgani shoes and see the light. He's poor, hungry and has almost medieval weapons, yet he fights to defend his country against insurmountable odds. Isn't defending your country a universal noble goal. All he wants us to do is leave.
    Want your family safe?……bring them home NOW
    Been there….served my country.

  5. Dissapointed in VA says:

    $3 trillion in Iraq…? Even by the most generous estimates (although you do hint at the irrelevance of your figure by noting your inclusion of these ambiguous “downstream costs”), the cost of the war in Iraq has been less than $700 billion. This is no small cost, and it would certainly do well to serve your argument.

    Inflating figures for shock value is a disingenuous tactic that only degrades the integrity of your argument.

  6. Taliban Does Not = Afghanistan says:

    notsleepy–your entire perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan is based on the incorrect assumption that the Taliban represent the Afghan people. You consider that the Taliban simply want their country back–in reality, however, the country does not belong to them at all. Currently, under the democratic government in power, citizens–and ESPECIALLY women–are experiencing freedom and liberties forbidden under the defunct Taliban regime.

    Would you forsake these people, condemning the everyday citizen to the loss of individual freedoms and forcing women back to stone-age oppression under men? You are clearly a male, and I wonder if you can even possibly understand the oppression that these women have faced–and will face in the future if people like you have their way.

  7. Dissapointed in VA says:

    $3 trillion in Iraq…? Even by the most generous estimates (although you do hint at the irrelevance of your figure by noting your inclusion of these ambiguous “downstream costs”), the cost of the war in Iraq has been less than $700 billion. This is no small cost, and it would certainly do well to serve your argument.

    Inflating figures for shock value is a disingenuous tactic that only degrades the integrity of your argument.

  8. Taliban Does Not = Afghanistan says:

    notsleepy–your entire perspective on the conflict in Afghanistan is based on the incorrect assumption that the Taliban represent the Afghan people. You consider that the Taliban simply want their country back–in reality, however, the country does not belong to them at all. Currently, under the democratic government in power, citizens–and ESPECIALLY women–are experiencing freedom and liberties forbidden under the defunct Taliban regime.

    Would you forsake these people, condemning the everyday citizen to the loss of individual freedoms and forcing women back to stone-age oppression under men? You are clearly a male, and I wonder if you can even possibly understand the oppression that these women have faced–and will face in the future if people like you have their way.

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