Conservatives blast Petraeus as "sycophant savior"

The magazine founded by Pat Buchanan has scathing words for the Iraq commander. Will Congress censure it?


Joan Walsh
October 4, 2007 11:35PM (UTC)

Maybe it's not as biting as MoveOn's "General Betray Us?" line, but the latest American Conservative magazine features a cover photo of Gen. David Petraeus under the blaring headline: "Sycophant Savior." And there's no question mark in the title, either. It's a must read.

The searing piece by Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University international studies professor who lost his son fighting in Iraq, accuses Petraeus of being a political general "of the worst kind." While Bacevich acknowledges that questions were raised about the accuracy of some of Petraeus's claims of progress, for the purpose of his essay he suggests we set them aside and take Petraeus at his word: The surge has worked modestly. Violence and killings are down in the last six months, though they remain too high.

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"What then should he have recommended to the Congress and the president?" Bacevich asks. "That is, if the commitment of a modest increment of additional forces —the 30,000 troops comprising the surge, now employed in accordance with sound counterinsurgency doctrine —has begun to turn things around, then what should the senior field commander be asking for next?

"A single word suffices to answer that question: more. More time. More money. And above all, more troops.

"It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on…Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. Based on two or three months of (ostensibly) positive indicators, he has advised the president to ease the pressure, withdrawing the increment of troops that had (purportedly) enabled the coalition to seize the initiative in the first place.

"This defies logic."

I've been thinking the same thing for weeks: If the surge is working, as Petraeus claims, wouldn't the answer be more troops, not less? I was shocked when I saw several recent charts and stories showing the dip in civilian and military casualties in Iraq since the surge: There's been a steady decline since May, but September Iraqi casualties are lower than they've been since last November, and U.S. military deaths were lower than they've been in 13 months. You can quibble about what that means: Deaths are down because more neighborhoods have been ethnically "cleansed" and there's no one left to kill; plus, it shouldn't be a surprise that the surge could -- temporarily -- reduce violence. Meanwhile, violence still remains high. But it's an interesting trend -- and one that I haven't seen hawked much by war supporters.

Bacevich has an interesting theory for their silence, blaming "politics -- of the wrong kind." He then walks through all the constituencies served by a troop drawdown: The Joint Chiefs, "who view the stress being imposed on U.S. forces as intolerable." Moderate Congressional Republicans; Bacevich notes that "Petraeus’s proposed withdrawal of one brigade before Christmas coincides precisely with a suggestion made just weeks ago by Sen. John Warner, the influential Republican from Virginia." Democrats get something too: they can tell a restless, anti-war nation that their pressure is leading to a reduction in troops.

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"Above all, a modest drawdown pleases President Bush," Bacevich writes. "It gives him breathing room to continue the conflict in which he has so much invested. It all but guarantees that Iraq will be the principal gift that Bush bestows upon his successor when he leaves office in January 2009." But the charade also ensures that the costs of the protracted war continue to be borne by one-half of one percent of the nation's 300 million people, families like Bacevich's, while the rest of us go shopping.

Make no mistake: Bacevich is a war critic. He doesn't believe the momentum of the surge can be sustained without many more new troops, and even with a lot more troops, he doesn't seem to think Iraq can be made a democracy by an American occupying army, either. His point is that Petraeus ducked the opportunity to force the president, and the nation, to confront the inconsistencies and fundamental lack of seriousness at the heart of both the Iraq war and Bush's global war on terror.

"This defines Petraeus’s failure. Instead of obliging the president and the Congress to confront this fundamental contradiction -- are we or are we not at war? -- he chose instead to let them off the hook….

"Politically, it qualifies as a brilliant maneuver. The general’s relationships with official Washington remain intact. Yet he has broken faith with the soldiers he commands and the Army to which he has devoted his life. He has failed his country. History will not judge him kindly."

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Those are strong words – to say Petraeus has "broken faith" with the soldiers and Army he commands sounds a lot like he's, well, betrayed them. Will the magazine founded by Pat Buchanan come in for the same kind of abuse MoveOn did? Don't hold your breath. But do read the piece. The cynicism of this administration and its sycophants is breathtaking.


Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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