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A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.


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