Obama's Tricky Battle with the Military-Media Complex

On February 27, 2009, just a month after being elected as an anti-war candidate, President Barack Obama revealed his plans for completing the combat portion of America’s ongoing military involvement in Iraq. “Let me say this as plainly as I can,” Obama said. “By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end. I intend to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.”

Obama has arguably met his self-imposed deadline. But will the powerful military-media complex allow him to remove “all US troops from Iraq” by the end of next year? Moreover, will they ever support his July 2011 deadline for US troops to begin leaving Afghanistan – a country the US invaded earlier and has occupied longer than Iraq?

Given that Obama has delivered on his promise in Iraq, why should we doubt next year’s pending pullouts from both Iraq and Afghanistan? Simple: high military officials and their accomplices in the media ardently oppose both – and the president is either unwilling or simply unable to confront them.

As ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern noted in a recent post entitled “Obama Boxed In by Generals on Afghanistan,” the president’s policy regarding both Iraq and Afghanistan has been consistently and quite publicly undermined in the media by military leaders.

Peter Baker also noted Obama’s “tense relationship with the military” in the New York Times. Baker detailed the “uneasy balance between a president wary of endless commitment and a military worried he is not fully invested in the cause,” quoted a former Obama adviser who described the president’s relationship with the military as “troubled,” and noted that he “doesn’t have a handle on it.” Baker also quoted former Bush adviser Peter D. Feaver as saying “There’s deep uncertainty and perhaps doubt in the military about his commitment to see the wars through to a successful conclusion,” and concluded, “The next two years are far more likely to witness a Donnybrook between the Pentagon and White House, as the security situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate and [General David] Petraeus — now commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, with his vaunted reputation riding on success — inevitably demands more troops.”

Recently Marine Commandant General James Conway used a news conference to attack the July 2011 date now set for Afghanistan troop withdrawal. Conway said the Obama deadline might be helping the Taliban:

“In some ways … it’s probably giving our enemy sustenance. … We think he may be saying to himself … ‘Hey, you know, we only have to hold out for so long.’”

Conway then noted that will change in the fall [of 2011] when “we’re still there hammering them like we have been.”

Conway’s press conference followed similar remarks by General Petraeus, newly appointed commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, who said it will be “years” and not months before Afghans can take over from U.S. troops:

“I honestly think it will be a few years before conditions on the ground are such that turnover will be possible for us.”

Ray McGovern believes, “The Obama administration’s reluctance to discipline senior generals for comments bordering on insubordination seems to have encouraged the generals to believe they can speak their mind with impunity about President Obama’s management of the Afghan conflict.”

They are clearly correct in that assumption, even though Obama supporters like to point to his firing of Stanley McChrystal (Petraeus’ predecessor as commander in Afghanistan) after McChrystal was quoted in the now-infamous Rolling Stone article “Runaway General” as mocking Obama and other civilian leaders. Rolling Stone also described how McChrystal said the president had been intimidated in meeting with military commanders.

Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and General Petraeus had pushed McChrystal on Obama in spring 2009 when they wanted to force out General David McKiernan as Afghanistan commander – despite the fact that McChrystal had lied earlier about the death of Corporal Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in hopes of promoting public support for the faltering war efforts.

Once in command, McChrystal leaked to the press his oppositional recommendations (a proposed major troop escalation and a commitment of at least ten more years) during the strategy review leading up to Obama’s decision to “surge” in Afghanistan this year and then pull back next July. The general went rogue again in London last October when he publicly opposed the decision to fight the war with a more limited approach. Instead of firing him then, however, Obama just dressed McChrystal down, and told other Pentagon leaders to stop backing his proposals – at least in public!

Obviously outgunned by the pro-escalation forces — thanks in part to our ever-fawning media, which regards Petraeus and his ilk as heroes – Obama is now wearing an ill-fitting political straitjacket. Choosing to appear tough while still nodding in the direction of his supposed progressive base means the president bears as much responsibility—and blame – for the situation as do the military and the media. His conflict-averse nature and Rodney King-like desire that everyone “get along” make him his own worse enemy as he tries to avoid letting Afghanistan drag him down leading into the next presidential election.

As General Conway noted at his recent press conference, the president often speaks out of both sides of his mouth:

“The President was talking to several audiences at the same time when he made his comments regarding July 2011.”

In other words, as Ray McGovern concludes, “The July 2011 date was pure politics…”

Peter Baker buttressed this analysis in the Times, citing one Obama adviser who spoke of the president’s calculation that an open-ended commitment in Afghanistan would undermine the rest of his agenda: “Our Afghan policy was focused as much as anything on domestic politics,” the adviser said. “He would not risk losing the moderate to centrist Democrats in the middle of health insurance reform and he viewed that legislation as the make-or-break legislation for his administration.”

Obama’s need for to project an image of toughness – ironically by kowtowing cravenly to the very forces that aim to pull him down, the military-media complex – may in the end yield little for either him or us. Consider these recent remarks from another general, Ray Odierno, the departing commander of American forces in Iraq. Also speaking to the Times, Odierno said, “We all came in very naïve about Iraq… We just didn’t understand it.”

As reporter Anthony Shadid wrote:

To advocates of the counterinsurgency strategy that General Odierno has, in part, come to symbolize, the learning curve might highlight the military’s adaptiveness. Critics of a conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 Iraqis, perhaps far more, and more than 4,400 American soldiers might see the acknowledgment as evidence of the war’s folly.

Asked if the United States had made the country’s divisions worse, General Odierno said, “I don’t know.”

“There’s all these issues that we didn’t understand and that we had to work our way through,” he said. “And did maybe that cause it to get worse? Maybe.”


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