Dec 7, 2013
The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small)
Posted on Nov 21, 2012
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch
They were the ones, in other words, who took a mighty imperial power already in slow decline, grabbed the wheel of the car of state, put the peddle to the metal, and like a group of drunken revelers promptly headed for the nearest cliff. In the process—they were nothing if not great salesmen—they sold Americans a bill of goods, even as they fostered their own dreams of establishing a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East and a Pax Republicana at home. All now, of course, down in flames.
In his 1987 Princeton dissertation, David Petraeus wrote this on perception: “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters—more than what actually occurred.” On this and other subjects, he was certainly no dope, but he was a huckster—for himself (given his particular version of self-love), and for a dream already going down in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he was just one of many promoters out there in those years pushing product (including himself): the top officials of the Bush administration, gaggles of neocons, gangs of military intellectuals, hordes of think tanks linked to serried ranks of pundits. All of them imagining Washington as a battlefield for the ages, all assuming that the struggle for “perception” was on the home front alone.
Producing a Bedside Manual
You could say that Petraeus fully arrived on the scene, in Washington at least, in that classic rollout month of September (2004). It was then that the three-star general, in charge of training Iraq’s security forces, gave a president in a tight race for reelection a little extra firepower in the domestic perception wars. Stepping blithely across a classic no-no line for the military, he wrote a well-placed op-ed in the Washington Post as General Johnnie-on-the-spot, plugging “tangible progress” in Iraq and touting “reasons for optimism.”
But there was another step up the ladder of perception that would make him the perfect neocon warrior. While commanding general at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2005-2006, he also became the “face” of a new doctrine. Well, actually, a very old and particularly dead doctrine that went by the name of counterinsurgency or, acronymically, COIN. It had been part and parcel of the world of colonial and neocolonial wars and, in the 1960s, became the basis for the U.S. ground war and “pacification” program in South Vietnam—and we all know how that turned out.
Amid the greatest defeat the U.S. had suffered since the burning of Washington in 1814, counterinsurgency as a doctrine was left for dead in the rubble of Vietnam. With a sigh of relief, the military high command turned back to the task of stopping Soviet armies-that-never-would from pouring through Germany’s Fulda Gap. Even in the military academies they ceased to teach counterinsurgency—until Petraeus and his team disinterred it, dusted it off, polished it up, and turned it into the military’s latest war-fighting bible. Via a new Army and Marine field manual Petraeus helped to oversee, it would be presented as the missing formula for success in the Bush administration’s two flailing, failing invasions-cum-occupations on the Eurasian mainland.
It would gain such acclaim, in fact, that the University of Chicago Press would publish it as a trade paperback on July 4, 2007. Already back in Baghdad filling the role of Washington’s savior, the general, who had already written a foreward for that “paradigm shattering” manual, would flog it with this classic blurb: “Surely a manual that’s on the bedside table of the president, vice president, secretary of defense, 21 of 25 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and many others deserves a place at your bedside too.”
And really, you know the rest. He would be sold (and, from Baghdad, sell himself) to the public the same way Saddam’s al-Qaeda links and weapons of mass destruction had been. He, too, would be rolled out as a product—our “surge commander”—and soon enough become the general of the hour, and Iraq a success story for the ages. Then, appointed CENTCOM commander, the military man in charge of Washington’s two wars, by Bush, he made it out of town before it became fully apparent that his successes in Iraq would leave the U.S. out on its ear a few years down the line.
The Fall of the American Empire (Writ Small)
Afghanistan followed as he maneuvered to box a new president, Barack Obama, into a new “surge” in another country. Then, his handpicked war commander General Stanley McChrystal, newly minted COIN believer, “ascetic,” and “rising superstar” (who would undergo his own Petraeus-like media build-up), went down in shame over nasty comments made by associates about the Obama White House. In mid-2010, Petraeus would take McChrystal’s place to save another president by bringing COIN to bear in just the right way. The usual set of hosannas—and even less success than in Iraq—followed.
But as with Saddam Hussein’s mythical WMDs, it seemed scarcely to matter when there was no there there. Even though Afghanistan’s two COIN commanders had visibly failed in a war against an under-armed, undermanned, none-too-popular minority insurgency, and even though the doctrine of counterinsurgency would soon be tossed off a moving drone and left to die in the Afghan rubble, Petraeus once again made it out in one piece. In Washington, he was still hailed as the soldier of his generation and President Obama, undoubtedly fearing him in 2012, either as a candidate or a supporter of another Republican candidate, promptly stashed him away at the CIA, sending him safely into the political shadows.
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