Obama is cornered by his
generals on Afghanistan
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
July 5, 2011
It is quite obvious that President Barack Obama has been besieged by his generals and probably too by some of his hard-headed advisors, including the recently departed Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defence, who made no secret of his sense of caution about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Obama has only himself to blame. During his election campaign he stood by the policies of George W. Bush on Afghanistan and said that the war must continue. But did he know what a bear trap he had set for himself? Once in office he found the resolve of the Pentagon’s top brass unshakeable, in particular that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen and generals Stanley McCrystal and David Petraeus on the ground, all of whom blatantly have appealed over the head of the president and talked to the media directly. (The British generals have just had their knuckles rapped for the same offence - Prime Minister David Cameron told them that they “should do the fighting and I’ll do the talking”.) Insubordination seems to go with the job - as President Truman found out with General Douglas MacArthur who strongly publicly opposed the president’s conduct of the war. Off his own bat he threatened to attack China. After a tussle of wills Truman sacked the, until then, invincible general.
Obama’s withdrawal plans are exceedingly modest. He seems to be in hock to his military.
The great Second World War chief commander in Europe and later president, General Dwight Eisenhower, found himself in the same position despite his background. The war in Vietnam was raging between the French colonial masters and the communists. The US generals wanted to assist the French. Eisenhower said that this was “simply beyond contemplation”. He told a confidant of his, “I was the only one around here who was against American forces going in. I tell you, the boys were putting the heat on me.”
His successor John F. Kennedy was of the same mind: “I am frankly of the opinion that no amount of military assistance in Indochina can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere.”
But time and time again senior generals and national security advisors kept pushing the young and inexperienced president.
Secretary of Defence, Robert McNamara and the National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, wouldn’t take the president’s “no” for an answer. They wanted 200,000 boots on the ground.
In an attempt to squash them Kennedy resorted to leaking stories to the press leading to articles that reported, in the words of one newspaper, that the president “remains strongly opposed to the dispatch of American combat troops to South Vietnam”.
But McNamara wouldn’t let go. He and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were relentless. In a paper they and the Secretary of State sent the president they wrote: “The fall of South Vietnam to communism would lead to a fairly rapid expansion of communism to the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and the Orient”. Bundy added, talking to Kennedy, “this has now become a sort of touchstone of our will.”
David Halberstam, the New York Times’ chief correspondent in Vietnam, later wrote in his book “The Best and the Brightest” that “one of the lessons for civilians who thought they could run small wars with great control was that to harness the military you had to harness them completely, that once in, even partially, everything began to work in their favour. Once activated, even in a small way, they would soon dominate the play”.
Nevertheless, Kennedy kept the hawks at bay. But once he was assassinated the inexperienced new president, Lyndon Johnson, usurped the Kennedy policies and gave the green light to massive intervention. It ended in a humiliating defeat in the hands of the relatively small North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong.
Kennedy had a similar battle when the Soviet Union placed nuclear weapons on Cuba. His advisors, believing the Soviets would ignore the US demand that their ships carrying more missiles turn around, advocated a military confrontation even though they knew that the outcome could well be nuclear war. McNamara later wrote that on the last day of the 13 day crisis he looked at the sunset and thought that this might be his last.
But Kennedy had a back channel to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev - his brother, Robert. A deal was negotiated whereby the US, in return for a Soviet withdrawal from Cuba, would withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey that like the ones in Cuba could reach the enemy’s cities in less than five minutes. Most of his advisors privately thought this was a humiliation. But, as with Vietnam, Kennedy forced the policy through.
Obama will need guts to oppose the military. But it can be done, as Kennedy and Eisenhower showed.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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