The truth about American politics is this: disguised by the
theatrics of squabbling Democrats and Republicans, Washington governs
according to limits prescribed by a fixed and narrow consensus. The two
main parties collaborate in preserving that consensus. Doing so requires
declaring out-of-bounds anything even remotely resembling a fundamental
critique of how power gets exercised or wealth distributed.
Barack Obama has two serious leak problems.
One is a real leak -- of oil from the bowels of the Earth into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the shores of the Gulf States. The other is a metaphoric leak -- of information from the vast reservoir of secrecy our military and its wars have become.
Dishonesty, the notion of "too big to fail" and Bacevich's consensus are at the core of both leak problems.
In the case of British Petroleum and the Deepwater Horizon explosion, we know how a back-slapping, good ol' boy network has led to a lack of oversight and regulation. As we learned from the financial disaster, the arrogant single-focus drive for profit leads to corners being cut and, in the case of BP, the absence of any kind of Plan B to deal with great gobs of uncontrollable orange goo gushing from a hole over a mile beneath the sea's surface.
The secrecy leak is different. In this case, President Obama is trying to stop leaks that tap into the too-big-to-fail corruption and dishonesty within a huge enterprise directly under his control: The Pentagon.
The United States Military is the largest self-contained, self-aggrandizing enterprise in the world. As militaries everywhere tend to do, it protects itself as an institution and uses its power to co-opt whatever elements of the culture it feels it needs or can benefit from.
Central America is the perfect small-scale model. In Guatemala, the military is an institution that always trumps elected civilian leadership. In El Salvador, military officers are deeply involved in banks and business ventures. In Honduras, the general who mounted the 2009 coup has been appointed to run the lucrative Hondutel phone system. In fact, the much-ballyhooed one-term limit for presidents in Honduras exists precisely to limit a civilian politician's power vis-Ã-vis the more stable military institution.
Only naivete' or delusional patriotism explains why Americans do not realize this dynamic also exists here in the US.
Since the Iraq debacle circa 2007, General David Petraeus has taken over the US military by storm. He is clearly a very brilliant man. His highly-touted counterinsurgency doctrine saved the war in Iraq from disaster and, then, made continuing the war politically possible.
General Petraeus is aided after passing out in a Senate hearing on
Afghanistan. Photo: Astrid Riecken/EPA
Disciples of the COIN Doctrine assure readers of Newsweek, in one preposterous example, that, had it been employed in Vietnam, we could have won that war. It is a doctrine based on seeing the military, not as Karl von Clausewitz saw it "a continuation of political activity by other means" but rather as politics itself, with a special focus on humanitarian outreach and "nation-building."
In Clausewitz's day, there was politics and there was war. War was a decisive step beyond politics. In Petraeus' Pentagon, the distinctions between politics and war are diminished or lost completely.
Thus, our military, which does not operate on a two, four or six-year political cycle, has incrementally moved deeper and deeper into the US policy decision-making realm. The 9/11 attacks and the feelings of fear and revenge that followed have accelerated this dynamic. Politicians from both parties now defer to Pentagon leaders for decisions on war and peace -- something the founding fathers precisely tried to avoid.
A man like Barack Obama with no military experience is forced to dance to their tune or be seen as taking them on. So he dances.
In this sense, the true brilliance of General Petraeus and his COIN Doctrine is less evident on the ground in Afghanistan where the situation is a disaster than it is in the halls of power in Washington DC. Petraeus is the prime reason our two disastrous wars are so invulnerable to criticism.