The truth about American politics is this: disguised by the theatrics of squabbling Democrats and Republicans, Washington governs according to limits prescribed by a fixed and narrow consensus. The two main parties collaborate in preserving that consensus. Doing so requires declaring out-of-bounds anything even remotely resembling a fundamental critique of how power gets exercised or wealth distributed.
Barack Obama has two serious leak problems.
One is a real leak — of oil from the bowels of the Earth into the Gulf of Mexico and onto the shores of the Gulf States. The other is a metaphoric leak — of information from the vast reservoir of secrecy our military and its wars have become.
Dishonesty, the notion of “too big to fail” and Bacevich’s consensus are at the core of both leak problems.
In the case of British Petroleum and the Deepwater Horizon explosion, we know how a back-slapping, good ol’ boy network has led to a lack of oversight and regulation. As we learned from the financial disaster, the arrogant single-focus drive for profit leads to corners being cut and, in the case of BP, the absence of any kind of Plan B to deal with great gobs of uncontrollable orange goo gushing from a hole over a mile beneath the sea’s surface.
The secrecy leak is different. In this case, President Obama is trying to stop leaks that tap into the too-big-to-fail corruption and dishonesty within a huge enterprise directly under his control: The Pentagon.
The United States Military is the largest self-contained, self-aggrandizing enterprise in the world. As militaries everywhere tend to do, it protects itself as an institution and uses its power to co-opt whatever elements of the culture it feels it needs or can benefit from.
Central America is the perfect small-scale model. In Guatemala, the military is an institution that always trumps elected civilian leadership. In El Salvador, military officers are deeply involved in banks and business ventures. In Honduras, the general who mounted the 2009 coup has been appointed to run the lucrative Hondutel phone system. In fact, the much-ballyhooed one-term limit for presidents in Honduras exists precisely to limit a civilian politician’s power vis-à-vis the more stable military institution.
Only naiveté or delusional patriotism explains why Americans do not realize this dynamic also exists here in the US.
Since the Iraq debacle circa 2007, General David Petraeus has taken over the US military by storm. He is clearly a very brilliant man. His highly-touted counterinsurgency doctrine saved the war in Iraq from disaster and, then, made continuing the war politically possible.
Disciples of the COIN Doctrine assure readers of Newsweek, in one preposterous example, that, had it been employed in Vietnam, we could have won that war. It is a doctrine based on seeing the military, not as Karl von Clausewitz saw it – “a continuation of political activity by other means” – but rather as politics itself, with a special focus on humanitarian outreach and “nation-building.”
In Clausewitz’s day, there was politics and there was war. War was a decisive step beyond politics. In Petraeus’ Pentagon, the distinctions between politics and war are diminished or lost completely.
Thus, our military, which does not operate on a two, four or six-year political cycle, has incrementally moved deeper and deeper into the US policy decision-making realm. The 9/11 attacks and the feelings of fear and revenge that followed have accelerated this dynamic. Politicians from both parties now defer to Pentagon leaders for decisions on war and peace — something the founding fathers precisely tried to avoid.
A man like Barack Obama with no military experience is forced to dance to their tune or be seen as taking them on. So he dances.
In this sense, the true brilliance of General Petraeus and his COIN Doctrine is less evident on the ground in Afghanistan – where the situation is a disaster – than it is in the halls of power in Washington DC. Petraeus is the prime reason our two disastrous wars are so invulnerable to criticism.
Sustaining this Olympian image as the man on whose shoulders our war policies rest must be incredibly stressful for General Petraeus, who, after all, is just a human being. When he passed out in a Senate hearing on Tuesday, it may have been dehydration, as Petraeus said, but it also may have been due to the stress.
He had just been grilled by Senator Levin on sticking to the July 2011 withdrawal date publicly declared by President Obama and, then, was being asked by Senator McCain for assurances he would not hesitate, if necessary, to keep our soldiers in Afghanistan beyond the July 2011 date. At that point, kerplunk!, his head hit the table.
Clausewitz wrote a lot about confidence and doubt – or as Senator McCain put it in the hearings, sounding “an uncertain trumpet.” Here’s a good example:
After we have thought out everything carefully in advance and have sought and found without prejudice the most plausible plan, we must not be ready to abandon it at the slightest provocation. Should this certainty be lacking, we must tell ourselves that nothing is accomplished in warfare without daring; that the nature of war certainly does not let us see at all times where we are going; that what is probable will always be probable though at the moment it may not seem so; and finally, that we cannot be readily ruined by a single error, if we have made reasonable preparations.
Mere civilians can only imagine the vast, hidden reservoir of secrets a man like David Petraeus carries within him: All manner of black budget research projects and operations, a host of global special operations missions, surveillance into everyday lives, hidden detention centers and probably the largest element in that vast reservoir, the record of screw-ups, the evidence of bad decisions and embarrassing outcomes and, finally, the hypocrisies and outright lies. And, of course, there’s the fact many of these matters are illegal or unconstitutional and that the visual ugliness of war makes it hard to sell.
His job, despite the setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, is to put a good face on it and sell it to Congress, which still holds the purse strings on our wars.
The New York Times reported that Petraeus’ goal before the Senate hearing was to show that the military now has “the inputs right” in the war in Afghanistan and that these promising inputs will lead to positive “outputs” down the road. This as the war in Afghanistan becomes the longest war in US history.
The seductive logic of the Petraeus COIN Doctrine is, while we may be having a rough time now, if we only adhere to Clausewitz and persist with the plan to keep sending young soldiers and our money into the maw, we will someday come out smelling like a rose.
Forty years ago, it was called “the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Tapping into the reservoir of US secrecy
Julian Assange is the Australian who founded WikiLeaks, the web-based entity created to leak military secrets. Assange may be about to release critically embarrassing Pentagon video of a May 2009 US air strike on the Afghan village of Garani that killed over 100 civilians with a one-ton airburst bomb. At the time, General Petraeus said the video would be released and it would show the attack was justified. The video was never released.
The US military is now reportedly hunting for Assange, who spends a lot of time in Iceland, a nation very friendly to journalists and leakers.
For interesting video comments on Assange by Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg, go to:
In May the military arrested SP4 Bradley Manning, a 22-year-old intelligence analyst in Iraq, for allegedly releasing to WikiLeaks video from the nose of an Apache gunship as its pilots gleefully gun down two Reuters cameramen and a number of Iraqis. In the incident, the aerial gunmen seriously wound two children in a van.
As the two kids are removed from the van by US soldiers, the pilots are heard commenting that the adults they just killed shouldn’t have brought kids to a firefight. The fact the gunship is far enough away that the people on the ground seem not to be aware of it and that the van driver seems to have stopped to give assistance to the wounded from an earlier volley, makes the pilots’ remarks seem sadistic and delusional.
Beyond the issue of “war crimes,” the Apache video is devastating as a window into how US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are fought, how one-sided they are technologically and how hi-tech war tends to debase soldiers to the point of expressing glee at killing people – in this case, people defending their own neighborhood.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quick to condemn the video leak. He said it was like looking at war “through a soda straw.”
It’s hard to disagree with Gates’ soda straw metaphor. (I’ll leave for another day the question why the Bush appointee Gates is still running the Defense Department.)
Gene Roberts, the famous editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer during the 1980s when the paper was a crusading magnet for Pulitzer Prizes, liked to describe his business this way: A city newspaper was a lighthouse in the center of a darkened city, sending out a pencil-thin line of light to illuminate tiny pockets in the life of the city.
Soda straw. Searchlight. It’s all the same. The only way to bring the light of truth to a vast area of darkness is to illuminate small pieces of that darkness. This is exactly what WikiLeaks is attempting to do using the internet — and it seems to scare the Hell out of the US military and the Obama administration.
They are so scared, the man who campaigned for transparent government is more dogged than George Bush in stanching journalistic leaks and shutting down court hearings that might tap into the military’s reservoir of secrecy.
Currently, the Obama administration is seeking to send whistleblower Thomas Drake to jail under The Espionage Act for leaking material on a National Security Agency program to a Baltimore Sun reporter. His purpose was efficiency and the discouragement of waste. The intention is clearly to make an example and intimidate future leakers.
Then, there’s the courts. All now agree Canadian Maher Arar was 100% innocent when the US rendered him to Syria for a full year of detention and torture. Still, the Obama administration argued the Supreme Court should not hear his case.
Why? According to Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal, it might raise questions about “the motives and sincerity of the United States officials who concluded that petitioner could be removed to Syria.”
Leaking is an honorable enterprise
In order to prevent the release of material damning or embarrassing to them, the Pentagon and the Obama administration are criminalizing good, honorable people whose instincts are to be open and fair.
There is no reason why Americans should not see what US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing in their name and with their tax resources. In a free society, the fact something may discredit the military is the military’s problem. Using the power of courts, prisons or worse to quash the truth is, as a Times editorial put it, disgraceful.
In a Department of Defense Anti-Terrorism Awareness Training course, the following question is asked:
Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorism activity?
A. Attacking the Pentagon.
C. Hate crimes against racial groups.
The correct answer is D. Protests.
If at the center of your government you have a huge, closed, untouchable military institution that trains its personnel to see legitimate civilian opposition as the enemy, you are in trouble. The arbitrary rule of secret government becomes inevitable.
Decent, red-blooded Americans need to support courageous entities like WikiLeaks and prevent the US government from making truth-seeking a criminal act.