Painful Performance

Painful Performance

By urging lawmakers to stay the course in Iraq, General David Petraeus remained loyal to his President, but failed the American people.


General Betray Us? Of course he has. can hardly be expected to recycle its slogan from last September, when General David Petraeus testified in support of escalating the US war in Iraq, given the hysterical denunciations that worthy group received at the time. But it was right then–as it would be to repeat the charge now.

By undercutting the widespread support for getting out of Iraq, Petraeus did indeed betray the American public, siding with an enormously unpopular President who wants to stay the course in Iraq for personal and political reasons that run contrary to genuine national security interests. Once again, the President is passing the buck to the uniformed military to justify continuing a ludicrous imperial adventure, and the good general has dutifully performed.

So why are we surprised? Why do we expect the generals to lead us on the path to peace when that is the professional task of statesmen and not warriors? It is an abdication of civilian control of the military, the basic principle of American constitutional governance, to assign a central role to an active-duty general to make the decision to end the war. It betrays the legacy warnings of our two most famous wartime generals, George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

American history offers no greater heroes, not because of their considerable success in battle but because they gained the wisdom to sound the alarm against unbridled militarism so passionately and effectively. The farewell addresses of both those departing generals-turned-president still stand as the essential bookends for what has been written about the limits on military adventure required for democracy’s survival. Washington’s plea to the nation “to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” sets the standard for enlightened political discourse. A close second is Eisenhower’s warning that, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

We have had many other examples of retired military officers asserting the need for informed and rational public decision-making as to matters of war and peace. Republican presidential candidate John McCain was one of those voices when, as a senator, he led the fight, along with fellow Vietnam War veteran John Kerry, to normalize relations with the same Communist leadership in Hanoi that had once been our enemy. Does anyone, McCain included, now think we were wrong to bring the troops home from Vietnam–and just why are the dire consequences that McCain now predicts for a withdrawal from Iraq any more plausible?

McCain says we have to back the president and his generals, even though he concedes that “four years of mismanaged war had brought us almost to the point of no return.” Who mismanaged that war if not Bush and the generals he picked for the task? But don’t blame the generals, for as long as a president demands victory, they will pretend to deliver it. If they demur, they will be replaced, as recently occurred with the sudden retirement of Petraeus’ boss, Admiral William Fallon, for his suggestion in Esquire magazine that he might favor a more restrained approach in a conflict with Iran.

No such dissension from Petraeus–his faithful testimony, at least to the president if not the truth, on Tuesday was a particularly painful performance. Civilian deaths in March were 50 percent higher than in February, and there were a score of recent American deaths, and there is no evidence of political progress to support Petraeus’ stab at optimism over the “fragile” situation in Iraq. Most absurd was the suggestion that the problem would all go away if Iran would only behave, when in fact American troops are being sacrificed on the pro-Iranian side of an internal Shiite power dispute. The Shiites in charge of “our” government in Iraq are exiles trained for decades in Iran.

Not so Moqtada al-Sadr, who stayed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, the killer of his father. Al-Sadr now opposes what he clearly labels as the US occupation out of an Iraqi nationalism that is also in conflict with Iran. Now he’s the bad guy, and the Sunnis, who hate us even more, are being temporarily paid off by the United States to stop killing Americans. They, too, will turn against us, but it will not stop Petraeus or some other general in charge from telling Congress a few months from now what the president wants them to hear.

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