Commentary Magazine


Frank Rich’s War Games

A few days ago the New York Times’ Frank Rich expressed pity for General David Petraeus. The Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan is working tirelessly to partner with Afghans and implement a counterinsurgency strategy while, back home, the neoconservatives—“the last cheerleaders for America’s nine-year war in Afghanistan”—are, in a tragically ironic turn, undermining his effort. The neocons, says Rich, are broadcasting their repugnant Islamophobia in the Ground Zero mosque debate. “How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar,” he asks, “when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?” Let us take a moment to admire the high-mindedness of Frank Rich—an American who only wants to support the monumental effort of, as he rightly phrases it, “America’s most venerable soldier.”

Done? Good. Here’s what Rich had to say about Petraeus and counterinsurgency three years ago, back when neither could be used as a shiv in a domestic political debate. “On the sixth anniversary of the day that did not change everything, General Petraeus couldn’t say we are safer because he knows we are not.” Rich was referring to Petraeus’s September 11, 2007 appearance before Congress. “Few used their time to cross-examine General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker on their disingenuous talking points,” Rich lamented. Then came the Westmoreland comparison:

Certainly there were some eerie symmetries between General Petraeus’s sales pitch last week and its often-noted historical antecedent: Gen. William Westmoreland’s similar mission for L.B.J. before Congress on April 28, 1967. Westmoreland, too, refused to acknowledge that our troops were caught in a civil war. He spoke as well of the “repeated successes” of the American-trained South Vietnamese military and ticked off its growing number of combat-ready battalions. “The strategy we’re following at this time is the proper one,” the general assured America, and “is producing results.”

Those fabulous results delayed our final departure from Vietnam for another eight years — just short of the nine to 10 years General Petraeus has said may be needed for a counterinsurgency in Iraq.

This September 16, 2007 column is a nonpareil of miscalculation. Rich managed to get everything wrong, relevant and otherwise. From his assertion that the “surge” (in discrediting scare quotes) was a bust to his pronouncement that the American public was so down on the Iraq War that they no longer cared for war films (he didn’t see the non-political Hurt Locker coming less than a year later). But his most grievous error was doubting the probity of David Petraeus (and Ryan Crocker, for that matter). Had Rich been listening, he would have heard the plain truth of the ongoing turnaround in Iraq. Instead, he called Petraeus a liar and pronounced the war lost. You’d think that after he made himself such a flamboyant hostage to fortune, he’d be more humble about tinkering with Petraeus in print. You’d be wrong. Three years later, Rich adduces the virtue and commitment that he had once mocked and lambasts the neocons (without evidence, by the way) for undoing the good work of “poor General Petraeus.” If and when Petraeus fully turns around the effort in Afghanistan, as he did in Iraq, on whom will poor Frank Rich blame the victory?