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Are Obama's Hands Tied?

William Pfaff
Columnist
William Pfaff is known as a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He has been published in five countries and his column was…
William Pfaff

A splendid and courageous new book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” by Andrew J. Bacevich of Boston University (and for many years previously, the U.S. Army), describes with lucidity the degree to which the power of the American presidency over war and peace has been weakened in our day, and, in important respects, superseded.

One might call this a silent coup against the presidency, but a coup implies intention: a responsible actor who sets the coup d’etat into action for a defined purpose. The argument Bacevich makes implies that a coup can be institutional or intellectual, and come from outside as well as inside government. Its characteristic is to create a situation in which a president is no longer free to act as he might wish, because all of the doors except one have been closed.

The most commonly cited foreign example of this is the German imperial general staff’s war plan in 1914, a meticulously set out schedule for mobilization of the army and its reserve components in order of the troops’ units and training preparations, integrated with the transport programs prearranged with the railroads, and the logistical arrangements to be set in motion, all of this assuming that the enemies would be France and Russia. France, the main enemy, was to be dealt a crippling blow, and slow-mobilizing Russia dealt with at leisure. When Germany’s initial enemies in 1914 proved to be Serbia and Russia, Germany (to oversimplify) was compelled by its mobilization schedules nonetheless to attack France — by way of neutral Belgium, thereby bringing Britain into the war.

Bacevich writes about the American Strategic Air Command, as hyper-organized by Gen. Curtis LeMay, with an initial mission in 1948 to deter Soviet attack on the U.S. with 29 wartime B-29 bombers, only half of them operational, and the handful of nuclear bombs the U.S. had managed to manufacture. By 1970, LeMay’s SAC was capable of delivering more than 10,000 nuclear attacks across the entire Soviet bloc. What use could a sane American president make of that force? (One remembers Peter Sellers, as the U.S. president in “Dr. Strangelove,” announcing to his Soviet counterpart, Dmitri, that a nuclear attack was underway, saying, “Well, listen, Dmitri, how do you think I feel about it?”)

When Barack Obama was elected president with a pledge to fight the “right war” in Afghanistan, he undoubtedly expected Defense Secretary Robert Gates to set out a range of options from negotiations with the Taliban to nuclear war, with comprehensive analyses. Instead it would seem he was presented one plan, already in operation, of troop “surge” as in Iraq, to be followed by “counterinsurgency” as set forth by the general commanding, David Petraeus — heavily publicized as a dramatic new war-winning strategy.

Could he refuse? The Republicans were against him, the Pentagon contemptuous of a military innocent, a former “community organizer” and “civil rights lawyer.” The press was in full cry for victory in Afghanistan. Obama would have risked a mob at the White House.

He had, in the phrase, been “set up.” But not by his enemies, or military putschists, or a cabal of neoconservatives, but by the very nature of American government today, the forces of Washington politics, and the demands of the press.

Something else that set him up, and is likely to keep him at the mercy of Pentagon and press, is a largely uncomprehending but compliantly patriotic public. Teapot sentiment does not extend to “defeat.” The American political and policy class is now convincing itself that the U.S. is engaged in “the long war” — the perpetual war against fanaticism, extremism and the threat to America that Shariah law soon will govern its law courts (as Karl Rove warns), and that the wild Taliban will stalk American streets.

Gen. Petraeus made his reputation by reviving classic anti-insurgent tactics for Iraq, and convincing his superiors and the public that they had succeeded. President Obama validated this by withdrawing all but 50,000 U.S. troops (while introducing mercenaries in equivalent number to those soldiers withdrawn). In Afghanistan, Petraeus has reintroduced his counterinsurgency program, this time as a method for dealing with a war in which victory is not evident. The conflict has been redefined as the “long war” against non-Western world radicalism, where victory (democracy) is sure but remote.

The war is a task of civilization (the plan is implicitly colonial). Its method is shamelessly taken from Vietnam — winning hearts and minds. Petraeus’ successor as commander of the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, says, “The margin of victory will be measured … by the allegiance, trust and confidence of populations.” Petraeus himself is quoted in Bob Woodward’s latest book, “Obama’s Wars”: “I don’t think you win this war. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives and probably our kids’ lives.”

Why should this be so? Will this be the message Petraeus gives Obama at the supposedly decisive strategy conference planned for December — that the “real war” has all along been that war for permanent world order we’ve heard about before, a condition for American security now and into the distant future? The generals set him up to back their plan for victory in Afghanistan. Now they are setting him up for its defeat.

Correction: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated “The generals set him up to back their plan for victory in Iraq,” when the author meant “Afghanistan.”

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy,” at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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