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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.
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 Consortiumnews.com'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.
"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.