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Petraeus Cons Obama on Afghan War

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One thing that comes through clearly in Bob Woodward's new book, Obama's Wars, is the contempt felt by Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, toward President Barack Obama.

One of Woodward's more telling vignettes has Petraeus, after quaffing a glass of wine during a flight in May, telling some of his staff that the administration was "[expletive] with the wrong guy."

No need to divine precisely what may be the "expletive deleted." Petraeus's Douglas-MacArthur-style contempt for the commander-in-chief comes through clearly enough. But Obama is no Harry Truman, facing down a popular general who may fancy himself a future president.

Pity poor Obama. Journalists favored with an advance peek at Woodward's new book, like Peter Baker of the New York Times, report that Obama last year pressed his advisers to come up with ways to avoid a major escalation in Afghanistan.

Baker notes that at one meeting the President "implored" them. "I want an exit strategy," Obama said.

Obama implored in vain. Petraeus, then the head of Central Command, and the other generals refused to come up with an exit strategy from Afghanistan. What does that tell you? Among other things that Barack Obama is "no Jack Kennedy," either.

This Time: No Profile in Courage

The young Kennedy faced very similar pressures from an even more unreconstructed military brass. Then, as now, senior military officers were experts at "slow-rolling" politicians who favored a course of action that the Pentagon didn't like. When in May 1962 Kennedy ordered preparation of an exit plan from Vietnam, it took more than a year for the brass to draw one up.

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But Kennedy knew where the buck stopped and was above "imploring." Rather, he concluded that there was no responsible course other than to order a phased withdrawal from Vietnam, despite strong opposition from the Joint Chiefs and others. [See's "Obama's Profile in Courage Moment."] Kennedy showed he had the courage and the cleverness to outmaneuver them.

Then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later wrote that there was "a total lack of consensus" regarding Kennedy's plan to pull out 1,000 troops by the end of 1963 and the bulk of the rest by 1965. Yet, Kennedy had the courage to step up to the plate; he issued an executive order anyway, bypassing the majority of his advisers who remained strongly opposed.

McNamara summed up the situation in terms that seem eerily applicable to Afghanistan today:

"The President nonetheless authorized the beginning of withdrawal, believing that either our training and logistical support led to the progress claimed or, if it had not, additional training would not change the situation and, in either, case, we should plan to withdraw."

Of course, Kennedy's Vietnam withdrawal plan did not survive his assassination. Soon after his death on Nov. 22, 1963, the Joint Chiefs convinced President Lyndon Johnson to escalate the war in Vietnam.

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"Bristling,' Then Caving

Drawing from Woodward's book, Peter Baker reports that Obama "bristled" at what he saw as attempts by the senior military to force him into a decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

However, in the end, Obama tilted toward the position of Petraeus and the other generals in a too-smart-by-half, hybrid decision. He ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while setting a "condition-based" date for beginning a withdrawal next July. As if anyone really thought then, or thinks now, that "conditions" are going to allow a significant withdrawal next summer!

Obama's critics are right about one thing. Setting that kind of deadline was worse than feckless from a military point of view -- for reasons that have been adduced time and time again. Cynics are correct in describing the compromise decision as transparently political and, in the end, utterly naïve.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)

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The slanderous and superficial analysis of Obama's... by Casey Reed on Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 at 1:37:33 PM
NOTE: Just before reading Casey Reed's reply, I ha... by Ethan Allen on Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 at 2:09:40 PM
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Obama is clean and without corporate corruption, c... by Casey Reed on Sunday, Sep 26, 2010 at 2:11:00 PM
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This seems to be too much to even say... by BFalcon on Friday, Oct 1, 2010 at 7:27:18 AM
At last, an article based on knowledge, reality an... by Robert P. Philipps on Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 at 3:33:11 PM
I watched Bacevich at Just Foreign Policy yesterda... by Christopher Rushlau on Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 at 3:52:59 PM
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......AND HOW MANY PEOPLE DIE IN THIS PROCESS?... by Robert P. Philipps on Saturday, Sep 25, 2010 at 7:52:44 PM
A very perceptive question.The civics books in hig... by Samson on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 3:32:34 AM
A very perceptive question.The civics books in hig... by Samson on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 3:43:29 AM
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I've read a slew of comments here on McGovern's pi... by Richard Pietrasz on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 2:05:45 AM
thanks for the comment; hope you have read James D... by Ray McGovern on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 2:13:26 AM
That they have Republicans behind them 100%, that... by BFalcon on Friday, Oct 1, 2010 at 7:35:43 AM
Too many are fooled by Obama's pre-election spin j... by Samson on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 3:13:49 AM
of course "has no" political agenda or opinion. H... by BFalcon on Friday, Oct 1, 2010 at 7:42:13 AM
It is a well known fact that cream rises to the to... by Marika on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 3:19:59 AM
Some people suggest JFK's exit strategy cost him h... by Maxwell on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 4:00:12 PM
Not doing the right thing for fear of political de... by Maxwell on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 4:04:31 PM
In general we do a bad job of speaking about the u... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, Sep 27, 2010 at 5:30:27 PM
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