Why President Obama Can't Let Himself Be Blackmailed by His Generals

Afghanistan policy has been under review by the Obama administration, and a classified recommendation written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal apparently was submitted to President Barack Obama on Aug. 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 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 to end World War I, once said, "War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military."

He had watched Allied generals misperceive and misunderstand strategy 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 after Korea, 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 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 overreliance on the military provided security?

It has built hugely expensive weapons systems that 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 that 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. Gen. David Petraeus 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.

Petraeus’s and McChrystal’s advice, which has been wrong in the past about Afghanistan, should neither be accepted at face value nor allowed to trump 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 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. Petraeus acknowledges al-Qaida left Afghanistan long ago, but in the absence of al-Qaida 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 al-Qaida doesn't return, does that mean forever -- at more than $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-Qaida might pop up? Already, al-Qaida is operating in Somalia and Indonesia, and what should we do about all the many weak and failed nations that 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 Obama into supporting the same costly policies that have failed in Afghanistan for eight years.

He should be reminded that Abraham Lincoln made a career of firing ineffective generals and got re-elected running, ironically, against one of the generals he had fired.

President Harry Truman fired one of the most popular generals in American history (Douglas MacArthur) and got re-elected shortly thereafter.

Obama cannot allow himself to be blackmailed by midgets and incompetents like McChrystal -- particularly in defense of a war that already has become very unpopular.

Once that kind of blackmail works, it never stops.

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