The General Came to Washington


Blend a war and a presidential campaign and you have a recipe for 200 proof mendacity, as the Petraeus hearings at the start of the week triumphantly proved.

Take the war first. Into the witness chair in the Senate chamber marched General Petraeus, the blaze of ribbons on his chest suggesting actual combat experience somewhat longer than the modest four years his record discloses. He was once shot in he chest, it’s true, but that was in a military exercise in the U.S.  when a soldier’s gun went off by accident. Many senior army and navy officers loathe the toadying Petraeus. According to an amusing column by Gareth Porter of IPS, Admiral William Fallon, chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM), “derided Petraeus as a sycophant during their first meeting in Baghdad last March, according to Pentagon sources familiar with reports of the meeting. Fallon told Petraeus that he considered him to be ‘an ass-kissing little chickenshit’ and added, ‘I hate people like that’, the sources say.”

Mechanically, the general read through testimony freshly vetted and re-written by Vice President Cheney, a man well aware that despite the utter absence of any supportive evidence and owing much to his own untiring falsehoods on the matter, 33 percent of all Americans, including 40 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats, believe Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks.

Hence Petraeus’ testimony had a reference in almost every paragraph to al-Qaeda terror groups in Iraq, even though prudent estimates put total al-Qaeda membership in Iraq at 1,500 at most, thus furnishing some 5 per cent of the Sunni resistance. Nor of course did the General omit frequent references to the mailgn role of iran.

The General spoke glowingly of his Surge. He marched the senators through graphs and flow charts, whose soaring  curves and bars spelled out Order and Progress, just like the Brazilian national flag.

In fact it’s hard to demonstrate there’s ever really been a surge, (as the Pentagon military analyst cloaked under the pseudonym Herman Mindshaftgap concisely demonstrates on this website today).  Right now the US is at a highpoint, with 162,000 troops in Iraq. But that’s not far above the 160,000 deployment level at the end of 2005. Moreover, there’s a steady decline in the Coalition of the Willing, which now stands at 11,500, falling at an average of 575 a month. Total Coalition troops in Iraq total 173,500, well below the peak of 183,000 at the end of 2005.

General Petraeus loosed off his volleys of bogus numbers and the senatorial candidates for presidential nomination returned fire in carefully prepared but equally meretricious salvoes. There were five such candidates on display – Clinton, Obama, Biden, Dodd,(all Democrats) and the Republican McCain.

This doesn’t count General Petraeus himself who, according to Patrick Cockburn’s story on Thursday’s CounterPunch site, disclosed his own presidential ambitions to an Iraqi official two years ago, though he apparently confided to the Iraqi that a 2008 run would be premature. He probably hopes he’ll be running against President Clinton in 2012. Candidate Clinton whacked presumptive candidate Petraeus with Coleridge’s definition of “dramatic truth”. To believe his report, she said, would require “the willing suspension of disbelief”, a line which duly made its way onto the front pages and news headlines, as did Candidate Obama’s theatrical question, “At what point do we say, Enough.”

Mrs Clinton’s problem is that she very willingly suspended disbelief in 2002. When it came time to deliver her Senate speech in support of the war, she reiterated some of the most outlandish claims made by Dick Cheney. In this speech she said Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his chemical and biological weapons program; that he had improved his long-range missile capability; that he was reconstituting his nuclear weapons program; and that he was giving aid and comfort to Al Qaeda. The only other Democratic senator to make all four of these claims in his floor speech was Joe Lieberman. But even he didn’t go as far as Senator Clinton. In Lieberman’s speech, there was conditionality about some of the claims. In Senator Clinton’s, there was none, though even the grotesque war hawk, Ken Pollack, advising Senator Clinton prior to her vote, had told her that the allegation about the Al Qaeda connection was “bullshit.”

Later, as the winds of opinion changed, Senator Clinton claimed – and continues to do so to this day – that hers was a vote not for war but for negotiation. In fact, the record shows that only hours after the war authorization vote Senator voted against the Democratic resolution that would have required Bush to seek a diplomatic solution before launching the war.

Barrack Obama, lagging in the polls behind Mrs Clinton rushed to Iowa on Wednesday  to savage  his prime rival for her war vote. “Despite — or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. I opposed this war from the beginning. I opposed the war in 2002, I opposed it in 2003, I opposed it in 2004, I opposed it in 2005,” Obama declared, in Clinton, Iowa. All the Democrats flourish urgent schedules for withdrawal. General Petraeus says that 30,000 troops can go home next summer, owing to the Surge’s splendid success.

Realists in military circles reckon the overall situation in Iraq is worsening, from the point of view of the United States; that by next spring, as one puts it, “the active-duty Army and Marine Corps will start to break under the current load”. Forces will decline, unless Bush orders a real surge next year in involuntarily mobilized reservists. He won’t do that. The war is lost, but like many a lost war, it will last a very long time. Acting President Bush made that clear in his address to the nation (small portions thereof. Candidate Petraeus may well have the chance in 2012 to tax President Clinton about the “stalemate in Iraq”.

I doubt if anyone involved in the Iraq disaster will be well received by the voters, even years down the road.

Young Stalin

Scarcely intended as a panegyric, Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore nonetheless does its subject a very big favor, rendering – within the ambit of Sebag Montefiore’s severely limited literary powers — the Georgian revolutionary as a Byronic Lucifer. In these pages there’s nothing drab or bureaucratic (Trotsky’s beef about the GenSec) about the youthful Soso (as he was always known to intimates), devouring Darwin and Zola in his Georgian seminary, writing drippy romantic nationalist verse, robbing banks, stealing hearts, leaving everywhere an indelible mark not just in the predictable form of his usual calling card, a gravestone, but — in the memories of many who knew him in those early days — as an entrancing fellow who really liked to party. Sebag Montefiore’s trip through Stalin’s first forty years is at its most vivacious when he alights in Russia’s extremes, the Caucasus and Siberia. In the former he toiled away in various Georgian archives from which he culled rich personal reminiscences of those who grew up with Stalin, helped him rob stage coaches for Lenin, murder police spies, organize extortions of Western oil men in Batumi and Baku – such as the Rothschilds for whom Stalin briefly worked.

In 1914, fingered by a Bolshevik double agent, Stalin was given four years in Siberia, most of them just south of the Arctic circle in Kureika, a desolate hamlet on the Yenisei river. It’s the only time there’s real panic in Stalin’s letters imploring friends and the Bolshevik party for a few roubles for firewood, food and warm clothes as he faced days and nights at 30 below. But he soon adjusted, hunting and fishing with the Ostyak tribesmen and taking up with a 13-year old, Lydia Pereprygina. He  certainly could have claimed in mitigation of charges of child molesting that he was saving her from incest since the place had 38 men and 29 women in only three families.  To placate local opinion the couple became officially engaged and had two children, one dying in infancy. Mother and second child survived their contact with Stalin, both dying in their beds of natural causes. Prudently, neither of them crossed the Urals from Siberia for a visit to Daddy.

The puzzle of this whole enterprise is not the lethal complexity of its subject but the book’s appalling style. Can English really be Sebag-Montefiore’s first language? The book reads as though he was taught our language by a Hungarian  with fraudulent pedagogic credentials. Page after page he uses the stepping stones of cliché, (“the Caucasus… a cauldron of fierce and proud peoples”), but feels compelled every few paragraphs to try a bolder verbal leap, always with risible consequences. A sample from the prologue, though every chapter  yields as comical a haul: “…passers-by saw the funeral progress of a ghoulish carriage carrying the dead and their body-parts down Golovinsky, like the giblets from an abattoir.” Sebag-Montefiore  thanks his editors profusely. Did none of them give a sheep-like cough in the manner of Jeeves and suggest that he burn all his verbal finery? The only explanation I can think of is that they muddled their author up with Stalin and feared to speak.



Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.