Obama can’t control his Generals – Time for Congress to step in

If President Obama is too weak to preserve our civilian-military order, then Congress is obligated to enforce its constitutional authority over the power of war.

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

One of the best parts of learning about foreign countries and their cultures is the sudden realization that these places aren’t actually foreign at all. You’re not studying an opaque alien world, you’re only looking in the mirror. As Americans, it fills us with hope to look across at, say, our progressive allies in Pakistan and note that they’re working hard, just like us, to correct and reform their country’s policies. But are we also capable of seeing the negative parallels? It’s all well and good to lecture the Pakistanis about total military subservience to a strong civilian government, but what about our own weak President and our own anti-democratic generals?

American military officials are building a case to minimize the planned withdrawal of some troops from Afghanistan starting next summer, in an effort to counter growing pressure on President Obama from inside his own party to begin winding the war down quickly.

With the administration unable yet to point to much tangible evidence of progress, Gen. David H. Petraeus, who assumed command in Afghanistan last month from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is taking several steps to emphasize hopeful signs on the ground that, he will argue, would make a rapid withdrawal unwise. Meanwhile, a rising generation of young officers, who have become experts over the past nine years in the art of counterinsurgency, have begun quietly telling administration officials that they need time to get their work done.

When something like this happens in Pakistan, we completely lose our s**t and call them a failed state, a tyrannical dictatorship, a collapsing nuclear-armed time bomb full of apocalyptic religious fanatics and corrupt, out-of-touch plutocrats. When it happens here, it’s called a “media blitz.” Oh you know, General Petraeus is just out there to “counter the growing pressure” by the American people, and hopefully force the Commander-in-Chief’s hand on war making policy. The young officer corps is simply pressuring your elected politicians to give them more time to occupy foreign lands and engage in aggressive wars. Totally normal, everything is fine.

It’s time for Congress to wake up. Petraeus needs to be reminded of exactly who he works for. The generals don’t tell us what to do, we tell them what to do. This is not Pakistan, this is the United States, and if President Obama is too weak to preserve our civilian-military order, then Congress is obligated to enforce its constitutional authority over the power – and the purse – of war.

Petraeus is openly declaring that he did not go to Afghanistan to oversee a “graceful exit,” apparently unaware that he’s not the one who gets to decide that. He’s even out of sync with the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates (h/t Steve):

“There is no question in anybody’s mind that we are going to begin drawing down troops in July of 2011,” Gates told The Los Angeles Times.

But Petraeus, asked in a separate interview whether he could reach that juncture and have to recommend a delay to Obama because of the conditions on the ground, replied: “Certainly, yeah.

As Bernard Finel writes, it appears it’s time for Petraeus to “resign his commission and run for office.” Only our elected representatives, responsible to us, can make the kind of decisions Petraeus is throwing around on Meet the Press. Civilians make policy, and if the generals fail to keep their noses out, they get fired:

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

That’s President Obama, referring to his firing of General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal wasn’t going on a “media blitz” and openly refuting the President, he just had a few comments in one article. Yet with Petraeus, Obama appears helpless and subservient to the general. McChrystal, it seems, was not an exception, but part of a wider pattern. We have a weak executive whose authority is being assaulted and hijacked by rogue generals. McChrystal lost the fight, but Petraeus pushes on toward a serious crisis in our country’s civilian-military order.

See, Pakistan’s rogue generals aren’t so distant and mysterious anymore, are they? We’ve got our own problems with weak civilian governments. Just like Pakistan’s President Zardari, we have Obama out there hocking a weak and ineffectual domestic agenda while the generals hijack our foreign policy. However, Americans are strongly empowered to immediately solve this civilian-military crisis, far more than our Pakistani allies.

We are already pushing Congress to end the war in Afghanistan, indeed the votes to block funding have tripled since just last year. And those congressional representatives too weak to stand up to the generals are in the process of being replaced by candidates with more backbone. One of those candidates is self-described “ass-kicking Democrat” Tommy Sowers in Missouri.

Sowers served in the military himself, in Iraq, and he has specifically cited congress’s obligation to exert its control over war policy – and that includes over the President and his generals.

I’m looking at this as a guy running for Congress, as a guy straight out of teaching the Constitution, as a guy frustrated by Congress delegating too much power to the executive. I wrote about this issue when the Afghanistan surge was being contemplated, asking, “Why is Congress mute on Afghanistan?” […]

The question comes up as to why, nine years into the war, it’s taken Congress this long to assert their authority. […] Critiquing the executive or military is something Members of Congress don’t want to do, because they feel they don’t have experience to do it. But I do.

He’s not kidding. Last week while Petraeus was preparing for his propaganda tour, Sowers penned an op/ed piece in McClatchy-Tribune papers blasting congress for neglecting their responsibilities and continuing the disastrous war in Afghanistan:

It is past time for Congress to make the difficult decisions about Afghanistan. Tax dollars spent building an Afghan military are dollars not spent toward defeating al-Qaeda. America’s limited security resources must be focused on hunting down and destroying al-Qaeda where it exists — in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia — not where it was or could be one day.

This logistical reality becomes more expensive every day Congress waits. With the lowest number of veterans in Congress since World War II, Congress must believe it is unqualified to ask these logistical questions now. But nine years in, it is far past time for Congress to start thinking about Afghanistan as professionals, not amateurs.

Sowers is just one of the candidates running this year, there are dozens and dozens more. That doesn’t even include the members of congress we have already, and again, those numbers are expanding rapidly. While out-of-touch politicians fret over the voter “enthusiasm gap,” activists across the country are practically bouncing out of their seats waiting for the election. They’re ready to raise money, knock on doors, and GOTMFV for any candidate – Tommy Sowers in Missouri, Elaine Marshall in North Carolina, Matt Campbell in Iowaanyone wiling to stand up to the President, stand up to the rogue generals, and stand up for congress’ rightful authority over the powers of war.

Sure, it’s bad that Obama is weak and unable to control his generals. It’s bad that Petraeus is attempting to suppress democratic opinion. But Congress, and the people running for Congress, understand full well that this is a fight the American people are ready to have. We know what we have to do, and we’re already doing it.

Take a look at our latest video from Rethink Afghanistan:

We’ve heard this propaganda from Petraeus before, it’s nothing new. They’ve been shoveling this garbage on us for years. Now the majority of Americans are pushing for an exit, and no matter what any rogue general says, we’re ending the war in Afghanistan.

So let’s keep going and make sure that Congress stands up to these rogue generals. Make sure your representatives know that it is their responsibility to end the war. Make sure they know that the July 2011 timetable is not up for debate, even if the President is too weak to stick to it. The war is destroying our economy, it is making us less safe, and even our troops and their families have turned against it. It’s time for Congress to step in and end the war.

Plug in to the Movement to End the War


  1. I recently read that Eisenhower, in that now famous speech, warned against the ‘military-industrial-political’ complex in the original draft but was told to change it to ‘military-industrial’ complex because Congress would have gotten incensed.

    The problem is not Republicans vs Democrats but rather a system of patronage and corruption whereby many profit from the US being in a virtual permanent state of going to war with someone.

    This is made all the worse by Obama being a weak ineffective leader.

    Great post.

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