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The Real Petraeus Scandal

[ 100 ] November 12, 2012 |

In a good catch by Greenwald, this bit of Petraeus hagiography is particularly instructive:

He salvaged two disastrous wars, for two very different presidents.

In a sense, this is true — Patraeus’s reputation “salvaged” these two disastrous wars…politically. There more relevant question is whether he “salvaged” them in the sense of making them less disastrous. As far as I can tell, he didn’t.

Let’s review Petraeus’ recent record: the surge in Iraq, which failed in most of its stated goals; the surge in Afghanistan, which also looks to have failed; and turning the CIA into a paramilitary organization which has assassinated American citizens (even a child) with no due process.

To be clear, the responsibility for these decisions rests with Bush and Obama. But Petraeus’s reputation certainly the enabled the continuation of two awful wars long after it was clear that the colossal waste of lives and resources was not accomplishing anything that could justify the immense costs.

Also worth considering is this, from spackerman’s candid account of the Petraeus cult:

But by the time President Obama tapped Petraeus to run the Afghanistan war in 2010, something had changed. Petraeus’ mouth was saying “counterinsurgency,” with its focus on protecting civilians from violence, but in practice, he was far more reliant on air strikes and commando raids. He was even touting enemy body counts as measurements of success, which was completely antithetical to counterinsurgency doctrine, and his staff’s insistance that nothing had changed sounded hollow.

But then there was Broadwell to spin the shift away. On Ricks’ blog, she described the complete flattening of a southern Afghan village called Tarok Kolache, confidently asserting that not only was no one killed under 25 tons of U.S. air and artillery strikes, but that the locals appreciated it. Danger Room’s follow-up reporting found that the strikes were even more intense: two other villages that the Taliban had riddled with bombs, were destroyed as well. But Broadwell, who was traveling around Afghanistan and working on a biography of Petraeus, didn’t grapple with the implications of Petraeus shifting away from counterinsurgency, let alone the fortunes of the Afghanistan war.
 

Particularly as the war dragged on, the “counterinsurgency” hype that justified the continuation of the wars seems to have become increasingly fraudulent. And yet the coverage of Petraeus by most of the mainstream American media was indistinguishable from the coverage offered by someone who was literally having sex with him. This seems…problematic.

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  1. mch says:

    Thank you, for refocusing attention on some areas in all of this that matter for us as fellow citizens to one another, rather than high-schoolers gossiping about adults behaving badly. I feel like a grandmother here (though I am still waiting for those grandchildren!). Aphrodite is a god, we know that, all of us, but there are other gods, too.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I think it’s funny how no one is pointing out that Petraeus was most likely fired over the Benghazi fuster cluck and the affair was just a way to do it without bringing that subject into the news cycle.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yep. Better to make it all about catty bitches fighting over a lantern-jawed Man of Power.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      I am certainly prepared to believe that the CIA’s transformation of the Benghazi consulate into a front office was a fuster cluck. But that merely speaks of incompetence, hardly enough reason to seek a new CIA director.

      • Wido Incognitus says:

        But that merely speaks of incompetence, hardly enough reason to seek a new CIA director.

        Maybe Obama really wants to make the CIA more competent, and unhappiness over Benghazi tragedy was one of several reasons for accepting Petraeus’ resignation (possible security risks from a secret affair, genuine remorse). I would still have a hard time believing it is some kind of cover-up of anything significant.

  3. Wido Incognitus says:

    Happy observed Veteran’s Day! It would be nice if politicians thought more about how war actually touches people instead of trying to salvage political goals.

  4. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Bleh I always hated Ricks’ hagiography of P in The Gamble. Petraeus is lean, athletic and smart. Therefore he deserves to be fellated!

  5. Manta says:

    I am not sure, but aren’t you a bit harsh towards Petraeus?
    The decisions of “surging” were made by Bush & Obama: whether they were good or bad, it was their call, their fault (if bad) and their merit (if good).
    Ditto for using CIA as the president’s private assassination corp.

    Petraeus was responsible of implementing those decisions: any other person in the same positions would also have implemented them.

    • witless chum says:

      Especially in Afghanistan, that far underestimates Petraeus’ role. He, at least, publicly cheerleaded for the decision before Obama made it. Which, given the cult, made it more difficult on the commander in chief if he’d wanted to go a different way.

      • Manta says:

        Giving his opinion was part of his job (even if the opinion was incorrect).
        The responsibility of taking the decision in Afghanistan was Obama’s.

        • Publicly cheerleaded

          Giving his opinion.

          You don’t see the distinction? Was giving his opinion to the Washington Post while the President was still making up his mind part of his job?

          • mark f says:

            Also, showing up with one plan when the president asked for three options shifts the blame for the results of that plan to its designer.

            • Manta says:

              What happened to “the bucks stop here”?

              I do agree that Petraeus overstep his duties when he went public with his preferences, though (albeit I don’t find anything objectionable about an expert working for the government communicating his opinion to his employers; however, military people are supposed to shut up more).

              • mark f says:

                Sure. I’m not trying to exonerate Obama; he chose his personnel, set his goals, and he apparently let Petraeus dictate too much to him. But Obama didn’t map out the surge at his desk in the Oval Office; David Petraeus, the PhD general & counterterrorism architect, was tasked with coming up with strategic options and he could only think of one.

                • Manta says:

                  Fair enough.

                  Question: do you think that, if Petraeus was not there (say, if he died before Bush’s terms ended), we would not have had a surge in Afghanistan?

                • mark f says:

                  Obama campaigned in 2008 on focusing on and “winning” in Afghanistan, so I think with or without Petraeus we would’ve seen a surge of some sort. The point of this criticism of Petraeus, though, isn’t that the US is at war in Afghanistan; it’s that the plan for winning the war that he designed and implemented has been a disaster. Maybe Operation Eagle Claw was a bad idea doomed to fail, but Jimmy Carter didn’t personally crash any helicopters.

                • Manta says:

                  But my point is precisely that even without Petraeus there still would be a surge in Afghanistan.
                  If you (and Glenn and Scott) think the implementation was bad, P. deserves the criticism for it; but if you think that the idea of surging itself (as opposed to, e.g., declaring victory and leaving) is wrong, then P. fault is mainly to have tried to obey his superior (with the caveat that, as pointed out, that he was rooting for a surge).

                • mark f says:

                  Poor David Petraeus, having his name pulled out of a hat and now taking all the blame for the president’s failed policy.

                  You know, we really should develop some sort academy for studying warfare, and perhaps establish an entity whose job is to make war, maybe make it so that it in each a person can rise through ranks and obtain positions of leadership based on something roughly resembling merit, so that when a president needs help developing a strategy for such he can assume that the advice he’s given is expert. This system whereby some random guy off the street is expected to do it doesn’t seem to be working.

                • Let’s not forget that there were actually two surges into Afghanistan. Immediately upon taking office, we sent 30,000 additional troops to stabilize a military situation that was close to collapse. Patreaus and his COIN doctrine had very little to do with this. It was a band-aid with a long-term plan was developed.

                  For the next several months, the administration debated what that long-term plan should be – you might remember the “Biden Plan” of quick withdrawal of ground forces and ongoing counter-terrorism operations. Later in 2009, we sent a second surge. This was the one Patreaus recommended and designed.

                  The former was the predictable outcome of Obama campaigning on a “pivot to Afghanistan.” It was a shift of emphasis and resources, but not really a change of policy. The latter was the implementation of the plan Patreaus was charged with developing.

                • Manta says:

                  Bush first, and Obama later, wanted to surge; they chose Petraeus precisely because he thought surging was the way to go, and is (or, at least, seemed to be) competent at waging wars.

                  I recall that there was an Iraq study group, that essentially advised Bush to declare victory and leave; and yet Bush decided to ignore its advice.
                  As you reminded us, Obama wanted to “win” in Afghanistan since before being elected.
                  If Obama did not like P. advice on war, he could have ignored him, or nominate him head of CIA much earlier.

                  In both cases, the surge _was_ the president’s policy, their is the blame and their the glory. They chose the man that seemed best to implement that policy.

                  If you think another general would have come up with a better plan to “win” those wars, then P. is to blame. But if you think another general would have advised to leave, then Bush and Obama would not have chosen that general.

                • mark f says:

                  So no one in a chain of command is accountable for anything if he’s not at the top? With the exception of insubordination, I guess?

                  I’m going to try that on my boss. “I know I fucked up all these projects, but since you told me to do them it’s all your fault. Can I be promoted now?”

                • Manta says:

                  The very concept of chain of commands is that a subordinate is not responsible for obeying stupid orders.
                  Bush & Obama wanted to “win” the occupations in Iraq & Afghanistan: the generals’ job was to come up with a plan & implement it.

                  If you think that those occupations could be won, then P. did a bad job. But if you think they were doomed from the start, he should not be blamed for obeying his orders.

              • What happened to “the bucks stop here”?

                What happened to arguments instead of empty cliches?

                You know, I’ve heard tell that CIA Directors and top military brass actually to have influence on public policy – no, really! – and that, from time to time, there have been periods in American history when the actions and influence of people other than the President of the United States have been treated as meaningful and within the bounds of allowable political discussion.

      • “He, at least, publicly cheerleaded for the decision before Obama made it. Which, given the cult, made it more difficult on the commander in chief if he’d wanted to go a different way.”

        This doesn’t get remembered nearly enough. It’s also another way the Bush Administration warped the civic life of the country. Despite the whole “fire Shinseki for telling the truth” thing, they were the ones who made it politically dangerous to say anything other than that we’ll do whatever our generals think is appropriate.

        • mark f says:

          Plus that was all occurring during a pretty intense moment of fighting, and the Republicans were screeching about how that was the fault of Obama’s “dithering.” And then Petraeus showed up with a single option when the president asked for three.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      The decisions of “surging” were made by Bush & Obama: whether they were good or bad, it was their call, their fault (if bad) and their merit (if good).
      Ditto for using CIA as the president’s private assassination corp.

      I agree! Which is why, you know, I said this in the post you apparently didn’t read.

    • grouchomarxist says:

      Petraeus was responsible of implementing those decisions: any other person in the same positions would also have implemented them.

      Ah, the “I was just following orders!” defense.

      And I’m old enough to remember when that would evoke nothing but derisive laughter.

      • Manta says:

        Unless you think that those orders were illegal, obeying them was his duty.

        And if you do think they were illegal, you should ask for putting Bush to trial and/or impeaching Obama. (Well, Bush should be put to trial, but not for ordering the surge).

  6. TT says:

    Of all the cynical, grotesque, and damnable mendacities perpetrated by the architects and cheerleaders of the Iraq War, endlessly revising the goals downward and then claiming that those were the goals all along surely ranks near the top. In Petraeus they found their most able and articulate cudgel.

    Also, reports that Petraues, while commanding in Afghanistan, basically had an in-house alternate staff comprised of rightwing DC think tankers who would accompany commanders on missions and issue recommendations that often ran counter to orders issues by superiors, indicates that he felt himself to be untouchable. And that his enormous media cheering section would back him up every step of the way.

  7. “And yet the coverage of Petraeus by most of the mainstream American media was indistinguishable from the coverage offered by someone who was literally having sex with him. This seems…problematic.”

    Heh, indeed (x1000). But don’t just blame our lazy media. Remember that the military takes spinning seriously these days. There aren’t many people left who think we we lost in Vietnam because of poor media coverage, but the biggest concentration of them is in the Pentagon, probably E ring unfortunately. They actively try to shape U.S. media coverage to their advantage, and that makes objective or even semi-objective reporting on our various wars even more difficult.

  8. Let’s review Petraeus’ recent record: …turning the CIA into a paramilitary organization which has assassinated American citizens (even a child) with no due process.

    David Patraeus was head of the CIA in 2002?

    That’s our Glenn.

    • Manta says:

      The piece is by Ryan Cooper

      • Greenwald repeats here, right down to the sentence structure and punctuation:

        As Hastings detailed in that interview, Petraeus has left a string of failures and even scandals behind him:…To that one could add the constant killing of innocent people in the Muslim world without a whiff of due process, transparency or oversight.

        • Manta says:

          I don’t see your point: are you complaining that the killing started before P.?

          • I complaining that the bogus charge “Patreaus started the pattern of shooting at al Qaeda commanders” is bogus, and that shoe-horning this hobby horse into the piece weakens it.

            In a sentence about Patreaus’s “failures,” they both cite something that 1) began before him, and 2) like it or not, is not a failure.

            It’s annoying, like that born-again cousin who needs to cram something about “Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior” into every conversation, just because it’s what he wants to talk about.

            • Manta says:

              I hope that you realize that many people (including, as far as I can read, Scott Lemieux) DO consider them failures.

              Anyhow: you will notice that Glenn does not say (or imply) that the trend started with P. (in fact, he did wrote many times about Obama’s foreign policy being a continuation of Bush’s).
              Your criticism is fair for Cooper, but Glen DID left out the inaccurate part.

              • Them? What “them” are you talking about? I’m talking about “it,” the one action I singled out. What are you talking about?

                Assuming you just messed up your word choice, calling the air strikes against al Qaeda a “failure” robs the word of all meaning, turning it into something like “policy I don’t like, whether it works or not.” By doing so in the very same sentence in which one calls the Iraq Surge a failure, the effect is to discredit criticism of that actual failure by making it, too, sound merely like “a policy I don’t like, whether it succeeds or not.”

                you will notice that Glenn does not say (or imply) that the trend started with P.

                In the English language, when we write three things in parallel…oh, nevermind, you’re going to find some weasely way to argue that he didn’t write what he wrote. I’m sorry I insulted the guy in the poster above your bed. Happy?

                • Manta says:

                  I may be mistaken, but I think that the person having problem with the English language is the one that in an article read things that are not written there.

                • …and my prediction pans out: oh, nevermind, you’re going to find some weasely way to argue that he didn’t write what he wrote.

                • Manta says:

                  And, in your position, I would not use phrases such as

                  “I’m sorry I insulted the guy in the poster above your bed. Happy?”.

                  You know, glasshouses and
                  stones…

                  To quote you “Oh, look, an insulting gay sex reference.”

                • You have a strange sex life. Most people have rock bands hanging in their room.

                  Whatever floats your boat, though.

                • Manta says:

                  I was referring to the poster of Obama, but it seemed indelicate to point it out.

                  (Really? Poster hanging in the bedroom? You are a teenager? I did would have never guessed that).

                • Look, Manta, it’s clear that I just gotta be wrong about something or you’re never going to stop, so how about I stipulate to that in a general sense, and you go on with your life?

                  I was wrong about something. Whatever you most want me to have been wrong about at this particular moment. OK?

              • Manta says:

                I would prefer an apology, but, being you, I will not hold my breath for it.

                However, I do agree that it’s better that we drop the subject.

          • Anonymous says:

            he’s complaining that Greenwald is insufficient in his fellating of the President

        • And?

          The air strikes against al Qaeda began when Patraeus was a two-star general commanding the 101st.

          They were ramped up when Leon Panetta was DCI.

          Discussing them as a Patraeus policy, like the surges in Iraq, makes no more sense than discussing them as a failure, like the surge in Iraq.

          • timb says:

            “AND?”

            And, that’s the murder Glenn was talking about. Blaming Patraeus for the blood on his hands is so passe.

            Seriously, I know your thoughts on drones (the more the merrier), but do you really want to have the discussion that the assassination of a 16 year old American without due process (like that would have helped) is a point of honor for the President and the head of the CIA?

            I suggest concentrating on other areas of discussion

  9. c u n d gulag says:

    I’m waiting for Newt to call for Issa to start impeaching President Obama for a BJ Petreaus got.

  10. DrDick says:

    The Cult of Petraeus has always been disturbing. This kind of lionization of military leaders is never healthy in a democracy. We do not need some Generalissimo on a white horse to save us.

    • sparks says:

      Yet it keeps happening in American history.

    • witless chum says:

      Ah, President Wesley Clark, remember when you were going to save us? Presumably, that’d have worked out about as well as General John Edwards.

      This probably doesn’t end Petraeus as a candidate, though. If he ran it’d pretty clearly be as a Republican and so long as he says the right things about God and Jesus, they’ll forgive him. If he has interest in running for president, this probably at most delays it.

      • Wesley Clark creeped me out.

        Remember the ad in which the enlisted soldier says, “It was like being a regulator person in a great man’s army?”

        Hail Ceasar!

        • John says:

          The thing about Wesley Clark was that most of the people who liked him tended to be people who thought that other people would be impressed by a candidate who was a general, rather than people who were themselves inclined towards worship of the military.

        • mark f says:

          I saw Wes Clark at a pancake breakfast in New Hampshire, wearing a New England Patriots sweatshirt. He was explaining to someone that while he grew up a Packers fan, the Pats were his second team, or he admired them, or some such. The person asked him who he’d be rooting for when the two teams faced each other in a few weeks. “The New Hampshire primary will be over by then,” he said. I thought it was sort of charming, but at the same time I figured someone who so explicitly admitted to campaign BS was probably not cut out for politics.

          • Murc says:

            You know, that sort of pandering is not only lame, it’s only unnecessary.

            I’ve never met a sports fan who responded to “I’ve been a fan of team for years” with anything other than a nod of respect, especially if accompanied by something like “ever since my Dad started taking me to games as a kid.”

            They might, of course, then spend hours explaining to you in detail why your team sucks and/or is the work of the devil. But trying to PRETEND to be a fan when it’s clear you aren’t? Death sentence.

      • DrDick says:

        I felt the same way about Clark in fact.

    • Ed says:

      We do not need some Generalissimo on a white horse to save us.

      We just make them president, which usually doesn’t work out great but so far hasn’t led to any Seven Days in May stuff. Also, Ike wasn’t so bad and before recent events I thought that Petraeus as a political general par excellence might not have been so bad, either. Certainly superior on paper to anyone else the GOP has put forward for national office lately.

      Remember also that as a rule the putative man on horseback has to dazzle the masses with some spectacular victories first, so I think we’re safe for the present.

  11. Robert Farley says:

    I’ll have a post on this later in the week; I think that there are fair and unfair critiques of Petraeus as military commander, and that Glenn lumps them together. In general, I think that most of the civil-military relations critiques are pretty solid; helped drive Afghan surge in ways that were probably inappropriate, and was a touch more publicly supportive of Bush in Iraq than he should have been.

    But then I think we have to be careful about the claim that the surge failed in Iraq; there are a lot of variables that contributed to the decrease in violence after 2007, and I think there’s a very good case a) that the surge was one of these factors and b) that Petraeus deserves credit not only for helping put it together, but also for getting the Army into a place where it could carry out such a strategy.

    I also think that critique of Petraeus efforts on training Iraq/Afghan/Libya are probably a bit unfair; rebuilding a foreign military organization in a very short period of time under high stress conditions is incredibly difficult, with a low success rate.

    • bradP says:

      I think that there are fair and unfair critiques of Petraeus as military commander, and that Glenn lumps them together.

      That would be so out of character for Glenn.

    • and was a touch more publicly supportive of Bush in Iraq than he should have been

      You think?

      1. Uniformed military commanders aren’t supposed to let any daylight show between themselves and their civilian superiors.

      2. While testifying in front of Congress, he was asked “Is the Iraq War making us safer?” and answered “I don’t know.” I found that a rather remarkable stray from the prepared script.

    • Holden Pattern says:

      rebuilding a foreign military organization in a very short period of time under high stress conditions is incredibly difficult, with a low success rate

      And yet, our politicians (of both parties, including the infallible O!) keep pretending that it can be done as a way to unshit the bed and safely disengage in whatever hostile foreign country we’re occupying.

  12. Eli Rabett says:

    Obama’s opinions on Afghanistan and Al Queda have always been clear and a lot closer to Petraeus than Greenwald. Go read his speech during the Iraq War run up and his statements during the 2008 campaign

    The Chicago speech was an interesting forerunner to the Arab Spring:

    You want a fight, President Bush? Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.

    Perhaps when history unwinds the tape we will find the CIAs fingerprints in interesting places.

  13. [...] * The Real Petraeus Scandal: the compelled veneration of all things military. Via LGM. [...]

  14. Josh G. says:

    In a similar vein, the real Broadwell scandal is articles like this loathsome piece. (Here is an article calling her out on it.) Interestingly, someone in the comments was asking about her conflicts of interest even then: “I am just trying to figure out in what capacity is Ms Broadwell writing: as a scholar? as a think tank analyst? as an embedded reporter with a us unit? as an operational scribe? some combination of all of the above?” Well, I guess we know the answer to that now. Sex scandals make good copy, but it seems to me that the conflict of interest is the real scandal here: Broadwell was not only Petraeus’s lover but also the subject of her thesis, her military superior, and various other things, many of which aren’t supposed to go together.

  15. grouchomarxist says:

    Seems like Petraeus was getting a bit big for his britches:

    He recently showed up to speak at a dinner in Washington wearing a row of military medals on the lapel of his suit jacket. The brass prompted a few double takes from a crowd in which only uniformed military men had donned their medals.

  16. herr doktor bimler says:

    A shako. Epaulettes.
    (Epaulettes are not Ron Paul’s female following on FB. I looked it up)

  17. [...] The scandal isn’t that some ho-hum affair dethroned a previously untouchable general—it’s that the general was untouchable in the first place. As Scott Lemieux put it: [...]

  18. [...] narrative arc — despite the salacious demise of one of the story’s chief architects and protagonists – is still oriented toward reassuring Americans that the decade long war is [...]

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