Is Petraeus Eligible?

March 6, 2015 at 9:28 am (tWP) (, , , , , , , , , , , )

iraqi freedom Satans-Sandbox - Cópia

It has been a historical constant that after periods of heightened social and political upheaval such as wars, citizens turn to icons of stability and fortitude. America is no exception and unsurprisingly, the greatest military achievers of the War of Independence, the Civil War and the Second World War, were all elected President – respectively Generals George Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower.

After the acrimony of war and its ultrapartisanship, a good administrator and leader of men is the perfect choice to manage peacetime reconstruction. In addition, military figures possess the advantage of appearing meta-partisan: they are admired for their deeds, not their words and the defense of the motherland is a matter of bipartisan consensus. This may even mobilize anti-establishment protest votes.

Concurrently, rumors have circulated in Washington DC on the likelihood of Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal running, since the drawdown of combat troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only did they distinguish themselves during the War on Terror campaigns, they were the intellectual architects of the military doctrine – counter-insurgency (COIN) – that successfully dealt with the terrorist insurrections the US battled with.

While McChrystal left his duties in a rather inglorious manner and is said to be a Democrat, Petraeus’s scandal was much less controversial militarily and he is known to lean Republican. Given that the Republican Party’s foreign policy circle is nowadays dominated by neoconservatives and liberal interventionists, a military President would intuitively appear like an ideal choice. Nevertheless, not much enthusiasm has been observed for the occasional touting of Petraeus’s name but rather derision. Why is that? After all, neocons often repeat that the ‘surge’ – Petraeus’s brainchild – was a resounding success and that if only US troops had remained behind, not only would Iraq have remained stable but the Islamic State would not have been allowed to cannibalize on the country’s territory, resources, people and grievances for growth. 

The reasons why Petraeus would in fact be unpalatable for the GOP’s neoconservatives are found in the forgotten detours of the Bush doctrine and the opaque origins of counter-insurgency doctrine itself.

Let us start with George W. Bush. The 43rd President made many mistakes in his first term but he did show signs of empirical learning in his second. Many of the advisors who had served him counter-productively in the first term were either let go (such as SecDef Donald Rumsfeld) and replaced with their ideological opponents (the realist Robert Gates), or they were simply promoted away from the White House (Paul Wolfowitz went to the World Bank). The President also reversed course on some war policies: namely by allowing the ‘awakening’ campaign to dismantle the initial deBaathification of Iraq, in working together with former Saddam regime cadres to counter al-Qaeda. There was also a move away from pressuring illiberal allies into democratizing (elections in Egypt or Kuwait not having gone well for liberal democracy). Most notably though, there was the ‘surge’: an additional deployment of infantry to a military campaign that was supposed to liberate rather than occupy, that was supposed to be one of many simultaneous fronts in the Global War on Terror rather than a chief battlefield, that was supposed to fight technologically rather than socially against America’s foes.

Portrait_of_Gen._D.PetraeusThis backpedaling on Bush’s part is inconvenient to those whose advice – taken and found wanting – was eventually ignored; and as already pointed out, Petraeus was very much a focal point of the backpedaling.

But apart from bitter memories, why does the COIN General rub Washington’s interventionists the wrong way? Was he not just a soldier following orders?

The problem lies with counter-insurgency and what it symbolizes ideologically. David Petraeus didn’t invent COIN, he adapted it from French military doctrine designed during the Indochina and Algerian wars.

It was David Galula, a French military officer, who decided to draw on the teachings of insurgent tactics in Indochina to turn the Algerian War around. The French contre-insurrection with its population-centric social operations constituted in fact a reverse-engineering of Maoist guerilla tactics in China and Indochina. Inhere lies also the root of all ‘evil’. Maoist tactics, originating in a brutal totalitarian ideology, brought such political brutality, in turn, to the battlefield. Instead of focusing on attacking enemy soldiers, equipment and infrastructure, Maoists sought instead to exercise control over populations. This of course brought the war to the civilians and caused mass casualties. After all, throughout the 20th century, individuals have been empowered across all societies and so too the responsibilities of state have progressively been put on the shoulders of the common man.

Because COIN draws on a totalitarian tactic, COIN is itself partly totalitarian. Perhaps the first person to notice was General Lansdale, David Galula’s American friend who facilitated the introduction of counter-insurgency doctrine in US military thinking. Lansdale admired Galula’s innovative ideas but he did not fully subscribe them. Theirs was actually a debate between a colonial officer and a revolutionary; between French culture and American culture. Galula’s thinking was strictly pragmatic: a combatant cannot hope to win by abstaining from using methods his enemy uses. Lansdale however, took issue at the forceful control of populations to deprive them of enemy influence as well as their indoctrination through propaganda instruments. Galula on the other hand saw this is as essential.

Iraq was a manifestation of this very debate. The neoconservatives believed Coalition forces would be greeted as liberators and they could not fathom that a society could possibly attribute secondary importance to individual liberties; yet Iraq’s sectarian politics proved just that. In such context, the political lustration of Baathist cadres only made sense from a neoconservative point of view: ostracizing those who injure individual liberties could only result in gaining the favor of the citizenry because according to natural law, every individual longs for freedom, first and foremost. Concurrently, all was necessary was a high-tech blitzkrieg (‘shock and awe’) liberation campaign to destroy the oppressive forces and then allow the natives to naturally rule themselves as a free society. Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime had been an aberration in the natural progress of civilization which America’s operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ had helped destroy, in order to advance the democratization and liberty of the Middle East.

What General David Petraeus did was to set aside the ideological dogma and play by the rules of the locals: he brought tribal leaders and former Baathist military officers back into the fold and bribed local entities into joining his anti-jihadist cordon sanitaire. Whereas Lansdale believed the ultimate goal of war was to liberate, Galula believed the ultimate goal of war was to exercise executive control.Household-Cavalry-Afghanistan-F3_600x374

This is the fundamental incompatibility of neoconservatism and counter-insurgency: COIN is not consistent with universalism but is rather a direct philosophical challenge to American exceptionalism. COIN relies on cultural relativism to win hearts and minds. Worse still, COIN is the result of materialistic and utilitarian logic – rather than moral principles – in that it posits that any population can be controlled, with the correct application of coercive and persuasive means; which certainly contrasts with the Liberal ‘end of History’ teleology.

The pursuit of a noble mission is at the center of Straussian neoconservatism. For this reason the neocons will never cease to call for military power projection and will always praise the troops and generals. In the case of General Petraeus though, they will stop short of inferring political potential from military merit. Another neoconservative paradox.

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