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Engelhardt: An Obit for the General

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Cheney and Rice, among others, would make the rounds of the talk shows, putting the heat on Congress.  Administration figures leaked useful (mis)information, pressed the CIA to cherry-pick the intelligence they wanted, and even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they needed.  They considered just when they should roll out their plans for their much-desired invasion and decided on September 2002.  As White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card infamously explained, "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August."

They were, by then, at war -- in Washington.  Initially, they hardly worried about the actual war to come.  They were so confident of what the U.S. military could do that, like the premature Petraeuses they were, they concentrated their efforts on the homeland.  Romantics about U.S. military power, convinced that it would trump any other kind of power on the planet, they assumed that Iraq would be, in the words of one of their supporters, a "cakewalk."  They convinced themselves and then others that the Iraqis would greet the advancing invaders as liberators, that the cost of the war (especially given Iraq's oil wealth) would be next to nothing, and that there was no need to create a serious plan for a post-invasion occupation.

In all of this, they proved both masters of public relations and staggeringly wrong.  As such, they would be the progenitors of an imperial tragedy -- a deflating set of disasters that would take the pop out of American power and turn the planet's "lone superpower" into a lonely superpower presiding over an unraveling global system, especially in the Greater Middle East. Blinded by their fantasies, they would ensure a more precipitous than necessary American decline in the first decade of the new century.

Not that they cared, but they would also generate a set of wrenching human tragedies: first for the Iraqis, hundreds of thousands of whom became casualties of war, insurgency, and sectarian strife, while millions more fled into exile; then there were the Afghans, who died attending weddings, funerals, even baby-naming ceremonies; and, of course, tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers and contractors, who died or were injured, often grievously, in those dismal wars; and don't forget the inhabitants of post-Katrina New Orleans left to rot in their flooded city; or the millions of Americans who lost jobs, houses, even lives in the economic meltdown of 2008, a disaster that emerged from a set of globe-spanning financial fantasies and snow jobs that Bush and his crew encouraged and facilitated.

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."

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Given George W. Bush's increasingly dismal and unpopular mission-unaccomplished war and occupation, it was like the cavalry riding to the rescue. It shouldn't have been surprising, then, that the general, backed and promoted in the years to come by various neocon warriors, would be the military man the president would fall for. Over the first half of the "surge" year of 2007, Bush would publicly cite the general more than 150 times, 53 in May alone.  (And Petraeus, a man particularly prone toward those who idolized him -- see: Broadwell, Paula -- returned the favor.)

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.

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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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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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