McChrystal ouster: the neocons strike back?

Barack Obama‘s ouster of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of US forces in Afghanistan—and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus, who will step down as chief of Central Command—appears to represent a strategic shift within the administration. As a senator, Barack Obama opposed Petraeus’ “surge” in Iraq, declared it would fail, and called for troop withdrawals. Now President Obama has turned to Petraeus to revive his own “surge” in Afghanistan.

Petraeus won hero status as author of the Iraq “surge,” which has been widely portrayed as a “success”—inaccurately, we argue. The relative de-escalation of violence in Iraq since the “surge” is largely due to another factor—the fact that by then the sectarian cleansing was already accomplished by the warring Sunni and Shi’ite militias, the country divided into “cleansed” enclaves. To the extent that the US played a role in bringing about a bare modicum of “peace,” it wasn’t through a troop surge, but the buying off of reactionary Sunni sheikhs who broke with al-Qaeda in order to receive guns, money and local political power—another strategy that Obama now seeks to replicate in Afghanistan.

McChrystal’s ouster was of course sparked by his open wimp-baiting of Obama and his cabinet in an interview with Rolling Stone this week. After accepting McChrystal’s resignation, Obama met with senior advisers in the Oval Office for 45 minutes—including Vice President Joe Biden (who McChrystal specifically dissed), Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and National Security Adviser Jim Jones (who McChrystal’s staff called a “clown”). (Fox News White House View blog, June 23)

McChrystal also told Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings that Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” when meeting with military brass—an ominous sign for those perpetually paranoid about a military coup.

Petraeus was named to replace Gen. George Casey as US commander in Iraq in 2007—just as Adm. William Fallon replaced Gen. John Abizaid as chief of Central Command. This was when US fortunes in Iraq were at their lowest ebb, and the shake-up was evidence of a tilt away from the neocons, with their ultra-interventionist hubris, in the Bush administration and Pentagon. But, in the balancing of rival interests within the administration, Petraeus was the neocons’ man and Fallon in the camp of the more restrained and old-school “pragmatists.”

This became clear the following year, when Fallon publicly ruled out intervention against Iran—prompting his own ouster, and a tilt back to the neocons. Petraeus succeeded Fallon as CentCom commander, in an evident neocon counter-coup within the administration.

Last year, when Obama replaced the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, with McChrystal, a former chief of Pentagon special operations forces, this appeared as housecleaning of pro-neocon holdovers from the Bush administration. Now that Afghanistan in 2010 is starting to look like Iraq in 2007, Obama appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from the war he once opposed…

See our last posts on Iraq, Afghanistan and the paleo-neocon wars.

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  1. nah
    It’s the same (misguided) strategy, no difference, no big shift in policy or talking points. McChrystal just got off message in public for the second time. The argument can be made that maybe McChrystal wanted out as the war, or whatever they’re calling it, is going badly. Obama is waffling on the July 2011 withdrawl.

  2. Petraeus: revenge of the neocons?
    The America-first wonks at the Council for the National Interest (the self-proclaimed “anti-AIPAC”) vindicate our analysis of the McChrystal-Petraeus switcheroo. CNI executive director Philip Giraldi writes in a July 30 piece entitled “Who Owns General Petraeus?” (note implicit “dual-loyalty” canard in the title despite the fact Petraeus isn’t even Jewish):

    Admiral William Fallon insisted in 2008 that there would be no war with Iran on his watch. He was forced to retire soon after. More recently, General Stanley McChrystal voiced his displeasure with the White House’s management of the Afghan war to a journalist and likewise was forced into early retirement.

    Some generals, however, like the give and take of politics and harbor their own ambitions to hold high office. [References to MacArthur and Eisenhower.] …[B]ut Petraeus understands that he must satisfy some key constituencies before he throws his hat in the ring.

    …Petraeus’…counterinsurgency strategy, far from a new development, is a replay of similar thinking during the Vietnam war and a repudiation of the Powell Doctrine, which asserted that wars should be in the national interest, with attainable objectives, fought using overwhelming force, and incorporating a clear exit strategy. In short, Petraeus is the architect of the counterinsurgency long war combined with nation building strategy that has been embraced by both Presidents Bush and Obama.

    Petraeus’ apparent close relationship with the neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby is a matter of concern, particularly if he does aspire to be president. Some have plausibly identified him as the neocon candidate for 2012 though others note appreciatively that he initiated a long overdue national debate with his Senate testimony in March 2010, observing as he did that the failure to achieve peace in Israel-Palestine has endangered United States soldiers in the region. To be sure, Petraeus quickly did damage control for the statement in the Senate, helping in the orchestration of an article that described him as a friend to Israel who did not view the conflict with the Palestinians as a matter of great concern. [No link or citation for “the article.”] In May 2010 Petraeus received the Irving Kristol award from the American Enterprise Institute, indicating clearly that the Israel Lobby and the neocon establishment regard him as a favorite son.

    Petraeus’ personal link to the neocons is through Max Boot and the two Kagans, Kimberly and Fred. All three have advised the general and have been cheerleaders for his “surge” policies. Kimberly Kagan has written a book featuring Petraeus entitled The Surge: A Military History. A series of emails to Boot that appears to have been inadvertently revealed to Israel Lobby critic James Morris suggests that Petraeus’ ambitions led him to seek expert advice on how to mend fences with the Jewish community after his Senate testimony faux pas. He asked Boot “Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night? And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome…,” exceptional pandering by a four star general and also a comment that suggests a certain naïveté on the subject.

    Et cetera.