Et Tu Petraeus?

by digby

Joe Klein has published a very informative interview with Obama on foreign policy on Swampland and it's worth reading from beginning to end. Even where I disagree with him, I can't help but feel relieved and overjoyed at Obama's impressive intelligence (which makes it more laughable than ever that Sarah Palin has the nerve to diss his readiness in foreign policy.)

Anyway, there's a lot to digest in the interview, but the long passage about General Petraeus stuck out at me because of an article I'd read just prior to reading Klein's piece. Here's Obama in the Klein interview:

[Q] I have been collecting accounts of your meeting with David Petraeus in Baghdad. And you had [inaudible] after he had made a really strong pitch [inaudible] for maximum flexibility. A lot of politicians at that moment would have said [inaudible] but from what I hear, you pushed back.

[BO] I did. I remember the conversation, pretty precisely. He made the case for maximum flexibility and I said you know what if I were in your shoes I would be making the exact same argument because your job right now is to succeed in Iraq on as favorable terms as we can get. My job as a potential commander in chief is to view your counsel and your interests through the prism of our overall national security which includes what is happening in Afghanistan, which includes the costs to our image in the middle east, to the continued occupation, which includes the financial costs of our occupation, which includes what it is doing to our military. So I said look, I described in my mind at list an analogous situation where I am sure he has to deal with situations where the commanding officer in [inaudible] says I need more troops here now because I really think I can make progress doing x y and z. That commanding officer is doing his job in Ramadi, but Petraeus’s job is to step back and see how does it impact Iraq as a whole. My argument was I have got to do the same thing here. And based on my strong assessment particularly having just come from Afghanistan were going to have to make a different decision. But the point is that hopefully I communicated to the press my complete respect and gratitude to him and Proder who was in the meeting for their outstanding work. Our differences don't necessarily derive from differences in sort of, or my differences with him don't derive from tactical objections to his approach. But rather from a strategic framework that is trying to take into account the challenges to our national security and the fact that we've got finite resources.

[Q] But you didn't have to make that point.

[BO] No well I think that I did, I felt it necessary to make that point even though I tried not to talk about it publicly, not knowing sort of what the terms of our discussion were. Precisely because I respect the Petraeus and [inaudible], precisely because they've done a good job and because my job as a candidate is preparing myself to be commander in chief. And I want to make sure that I'm taking their arguments seriously, they understand I'm taking their argument seriously. I want our military brass and our mid level officers to all feel that I am going to be listening to them. This notion that I'm not paying attention to them is nonsense. I'm listening to them very carefully and I take their advice with great seriousness. I just want them to know that I've got a, I potentially will have a broader task at hand.

[Q] Right.

[BO] And I want to make sure that we establish a relationship of respect early on. Again not just with the joint chiefs but also with folks who align responsibly on the ground.

[Q] Now I've heard that conversation characterized as everything from angry to spirited to agreeable. And I kind of took it as

[BO] I would say it was between spirited and agreeable. That's how I would characterize it.

[Q] And after you made that point, [Petraeus] said I understand now.

[BO]He did.

Obviously I wasn't there and have no way of interpreting that exchange, but I wouldn't be so sure it means what it appears to mean. I certainly respect Obama for making it clear that he will be Commander in Chief and that his view is, by definition, more global, in every sense of the word. But I have a sneaking suspicion that The Man Called Petraeus may not be as sanguine about that interaction as Obama might wish.

The article I had just read was also about Petraeus and Andrew Bacevich quotes him saying that he no longer votes because he "thought senior leaders should be apolitical." Bacevich points out that this used to be common among the higher reaches of the officer corps, but changed in recent decades when the military became much more overtly Republican. He questions Petraeus' meaning, however:

... if Petraeus's statement that "senior leaders should be apolitical" reflects the beginnings of a retreat from the partisanship that has infected the officer corps, that will be all to the good. Indeed, General Petraeus will perform a signal service to the military profession and to the nation if he genuinely honors that commitment.

Still, one wonders. Since he burst upon the scene during the invasion of Iraq back in 2003, Petraeus has displayed a political sophistication and savvy not seen in any senior officer since Colin Powell himself left active duty. Among other things, the general possesses and does not hesitate to deploy (as did Powell) a remarkable aptitude for courting politicians and members of the press. Rather than seeing war and politics as distinctive spheres, with soldiers confined to the former and civilian leaders dominating the latter, Petraeus understands (correctly) that the two spheres are inextricably linked. To restrict soldiers to a specific arena of activity -- to limit their role to issues directly related to war fighting -- makes little sense and would be self-defeating. This is especially true in an era when the United States remains committed to waging an open-ended global war against the forces of violent Islamic radicalism.

The so-called "Long War" is a political war par excellence, with "politics" here having a domestic as well as an international aspect -- a reality apparent in the way that the Bush administration suppressed doubts about the "surge" in Iraq by employing Petraeus as its de facto spokesman. To criticize the policy became tantamount to criticizing the general, which few members of Congress or the media were willing to do.

Was Petraeus the administration's willing dupe? Or was he shrewdly pursuing his own game that just happened to coincide with the administration's? Who exactly was playing whom?

The question still to be determined is this: what role does Petraeus foresee himself playing as this deeply politicized war extends beyond the Bush presidency? Will he confine himself to rendering disinterested professional advice? Should Barack Obama win the election, will the apolitical soldier bow to the wishes of his new civilian master -- despite Obama's opposition to the war in which Petraeus built his reputation? We should hope so.

Yet by claiming to be apolitical -- someone who stands "above" mere politics -- Petraeus might also be positioning himself to assert a role not only in implementing policy but in shaping policy to suit his own agenda, in Iraq and elsewhere. In that event, General Marshall just might end up turning over in his grave.

I think there is nearly zero chance that Petraeus is apolitical and I would bet good money that he is positioning himself for a role in shaping policy. His willingness to be used by the Bush administration proves it in my mind. in fac, his recent protestations of being above politics are actually very cunning --- if the country devolves back into angry partisanship, which it will (it always does), TMCP will be positioned to be the apolitical outsider with the leadership experience to lead us out of the darkness. There is no doubt in my mind that when he looks in the mirror he sees President Petraeus.

Obama had better watch his back. As Bacevich mentions in the article (and Lucian Truscott IV wrote in my comment section last night) there is a pretty recent example of another ambitious General who stabbed his president in the back. This is the one area where Obama should cultivate Powell's advice. He's an expert.