Just when Barack Obama’s presidency was drowning in BP’s crude oil, a megalomaniacal US Army general called Stanley McChrystal, commander of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, did him several huge favors.
• He took the spotlight off the Gulf of Mexico.
• He gave Obama a marvelous opportunity to act the decisive Commander-in-Chief, packing his insubordinate general into retirement.
• By committing political suicide he created a vacancy for the one general the right wing can’t fault Obama for putting in his place – Gen David Petraeus.
Weeks before McChrystal and his drunken retinue fired from the lip, pouring their contempt for Obama and his top Afghan advisors into the notebook of Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings, the writing was on the wall. A steady stream of leaks from the Pentagon registered dissatisfaction among the top Pentagon brass at the way the war in Afghanistan was going.
Last year McChrystal courted immediate dismissal by publicly daring Obama to deny him the extra troops he demanded to instrument the counter-insurgency strategy he pledged would vanquish the Taliban, win over the Afghan people and allow Obama to promise liberal critics of the Afghan war he’d have the troops out by 2011.
Obama had the opportunity then to emulate Harry Truman’s famous firing of World War Two hero Gen Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. But Obama blinked. He gave McChrystal almost exactly what he wanted.
The American public got the impression that McChrystal, leading the Afghan mission, but answering to Gen Petraeus, now in charge of Central Command, was going to follow the latter’s famous ‘surge’ in Iraq. This was essentially a PR operation, aimed at declaring victory and getting the hell out. Petraeus is touted as America’s only success story in that doomed venture and his national standing is high.
Afghanistan is a very different proposition. McChrystal came from five years of running the Pentagon’s death squads – Joint Special Forces Command — killing or kidnapping America’s enemies in the Great War on Terror. But now he was trying to introduce doctrines of counter-insurgency (COIN), formulated in the Counter-Insurgency Manual for the US Army, assembled by Petraeus.
It does not require the intellect of Sun Tzu to see that you do not win the hearts and minds of a civilian population by bombing their wedding parties, raping their daughters, torturing their sons and, where deemed necessary, reducing their villages to rubble. COIN put these simple thoughts into military language.
McChrystal duly issued stringent rules of engagement, crimping the eagerness of field officers to whistle up close air support to drop tons of high explosive on suspect neighborhoods. These restrictions drew strident protests from his forces, as endangering their lives. McChrystal said there was no other option. But then came McChrystal’s showcase operation in Marjah earlier this year, designed to drive the Taliban out of this rural district.
As the high command back in the Pentagon studied the intelligence reports they found that it hadn’t been long before the Taliban, prudently absenting themselves during the Marjah offensive, were back in business. With the Pentagon background briefers whispering to the New York Times and Washington Post that the COIN strategy was misfiring badly, McChrystal put off a larger lunge into Kandahar until this autumn. The backstabbing didn’t stop.
For his part, Obama has been nervously eyeing his commitment to a 2011 withdrawal. The way things were going, withdrawal would simply mean “rout”, politically disastrous for Obama. To insist on an extension would land him in trouble with his liberal supporters in the run-up to a re-election bid in 2012. McChrystal and, far more subtly, Petraeus were already deploying politically for a ditching of the 2011 deadline. Furthermore, there was talk that Petraeus would soon retire from the Army and step into the race for the Republican nomination.
Then – a blessing from heaven for Obama – came the Rolling Stone story. McChrystal no doubt blames the Iceland volcano which left him stranded in Paris, staying at the awful Hotel Westminster on the Rue de la Paix, sipping Bud Lite Lime beer (does he sport silk women’s underwear under those manly fatigues) in Kitty O’Shea’s, with his retinue, ‘Team America’, cavorting drunkenly on the dance floor and showing off to the Rolling Stone reporter as they displayed their utter contempt for their civilian and military superiors.
How could McChrystal have been so stupid? Megalomania. A senior US military commander has the powers and appurtenances of a Roman proconsul, of a Julius Caesar in Gaul. McChrystal had been successful in massaging the press with confidential briefings and seemingly total access. Talking to Rolling Stone, he probably thought this magazine deserved a more unbuttoned approach than the New York Times.
Less careful than the adroit Petraeus, he over-reached himself, possibly because he insists on sleeping only four hours a night, running seven miles at dawn and eating one meal every 24 hours. (Petraeus has the same sort of Spartan life style. Rather than pour out indiscretions to a reporter Petraeus passed out briefly in a Senate hearing two weeks ago, stating later that he’d been dehydrated.)
The White House pounced eagerly on the opportunity offered by Rolling Stone. Aside from everything else, it was a chance for the president, regarded by most Americans to have been a wimp towards BP, to act tough. Without Pentagon backing, McChrystal was a goner.
Now begins a delicate dance in what bids to be Act IV or even V in Obama’s foolish campaign commitment to nail al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Obama has staked all on Petraeus who has accepted command of a mission doomed from the get-go. Though Americans are prepared to equate the Taliban with al-Qaeda, they can’t really see the point of the war. It’s gone on for nine years, America’s longest. Two weeks ago the Pentagon desperately refloated a very old story that Afghanistan is rich in mineral resources, like lapis lazuli and lithium.
Will success, however contrived, propel Petraeus towards the White House in 2012 or 2016? Probably not. Americans honor warriors, but they elect draftdodgers. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. There’s a precedent for Petraeus’s fainting fit. Julius Caesar famously suffered from blackouts. He crossed the Rubicon, but he didn’t survive long thereafter.
Obama’s Green Light to BP
In our latest newsletter Jeffrey St Clair excavates the corruption across three presidencies that led to that appalling disaster in the Gulf. It was bad under Clinton; worse under Bush. But it was Obama and his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar who set the stage for catastrophe.
In the first year of the Obama administration, Salazar’s Interior Department put 53 million acres of offshore oil reserves up for lease, far eclipsing the records set by the Bush administration. As St. Clair describes, Salazar was adamant in retaining Chris Oynes as associate director of offshore drilling at the Minerals Management Service. As St. Clair explains, an outraged inspector general of the Interior Department discovered that on Oynes’s watch “the repeat offenders in the oil industry were allowed to police themselves, writing their own environmental analyses, safety inspections and compliance reports, often in pencil for MMS regulators to trace over in ink.”
By the time Obama declared on March 31 that “we’ve still got to make some tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development in ways that protect communities and protect coastlines,” his administration had given the green light to BP’s Deepwater Horizon well, giving this notoriously criminal company—a big contributor to the Obama 2008 campaign—a pat on the back for its safety record.
This is a must-read piece. Also in this crackerjack edition: What’s the best way to create jobs? Eugene Coyle makes the case for the 4-day work week. Have the CIA and MI6 destroyed classical music in the western world? Britain’s best known composer, Howard Blake, says Yes.
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ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at email@example.com.