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« Postponing 'end times' - yet again | Main | Post-Caucasian world is not post-American world »
Sunday
Oct262008

Deconstructing military heroes and villains in Woodward's 'War Within'

There is an old Washington saying that "where you stand depends on where you sit," meaning policy views correlate to bureaucratic position.

This is worth remembering as Gen. David Petraeus begins his strategy review of Afghanistan. Those looking for an instant replay of his counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq will be disappointed.

Petraeus, along with longtime mentor and now retired general Jack Keane, are rightfully singled out for praise by Bob Woodward in his last instant-history, "The War Within." By abandoning the "big base" approach and distributing U.S. troops deeply into neighborhoods, Petraeus brilliantly exploited the favorable dynamics brewing in war-exhausted Iraq in 2007 - especially the Sunni "awakening."

It was a bold, doubling-down sort of bet from an officer with unparalleled senior command experience in Iraq. So armed, Petraeus argued long and hard and - with timely interventions by Keane - successfully against those superiors who wanted to curtail America's strategic exposure in Iraq in light of the region's many other deteriorating situations.

Where I part from Woodward's analysis is his tendency to make implicit villains out of Petraeus' superiors at Central Command and the Joint Chiefs. Whereas Petraeus is portrayed as devoted to winning, his superiors - and predecessor - are shown as timid obstructionists. In truth, all honestly played their assigned roles.

CENTCOM boss William Fallon was summarily fired by the Bush White House in March 2008 after an Esquire profile by yours truly portrayed the admiral as being vociferously - and publicly - at odds with the administration over its hard-line stance on Iran.

When volunteering his resignation, Fallon protested that my reporting misleadingly fanned tension where none existed.

But, as Woodward makes abundantly clear, Fallon's tenacious push for diplomatic engagement with Iran rendered him the odd man out in the command chain.

Increasingly, the admiral became a bureaucratic vessel for the Joint Chiefs' - as Keane termed them - "political concerns" over Bush's myopic fixation on Iraq.

Reduced to fighting Petraeus over minor troop requests, Fallon is depicted by Woodward as purposefully undermining the general's Iraq strategy, when in reality he was simply doing his job as CENTCOM commander: balancing a subordinate's needs in one combat theater against America's strategic interests across the wider region - including Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Far from representing narrow-minded political concerns, Fallon and the Joint Chiefs were - in effect - rebelling against the White House's clear lack of any grand strategy. When the admiral, early on in his tenure, proposed engaging with Iran, President Bush quickly dismissed the idea, categorizing Iran's leaders with an expletive. Fallon, writes Woodward, was stunned. Calling Iran's leadership names "was not a strategy."

After being told so many times, "don't go there," the admiral spoke out strongly and consistently in the international press against any pre-emptive war.

As Fallon informed his political masters, "We're going to go there. Because I can't do my job unless we get engaged with these guys."

Bush-Cheney made a bold - and correct - call on the military surge, but by refusing to launch a simultaneous diplomatic surge, as suggested by both Fallon and the Iraq Study Group, that fight was waged under the worst possible strategic conditions. Petraeus' dogged determination in Iraq has paid off, albeit with his stated judgment that Iraq's fragile gains are still subject to destabilization by its neighbors.

As Petraeus assumes Fallon's post, rest assured the general's strategic calculations will expand exponentially. Already, he's signaling that his review of the Afghanistan conflict will focus heavily on neighboring states - code not just for Pakistan but Iran as well.

Credentialed by his costly success in Iraq, Petraeus arrives at CENTCOM not a minute too late.

His strategy review, slated for presentation to the new president in early February, will doubtlessly incorporate significant strategic consideration of the entire region, thus ending the one-damn-thing-after-another tactical mindset so maddeningly displayed by the Bush team.

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