Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Attack on Petraeus

Yesterday, the day that Army General David Petraeus tesitifed before Congress on the results of the surge of US forces in Iraq, MoveOn ran a full-page ad in the New York Times. Today, Peter Feaver from Duke University (full disclosure: I took many classes from Feaver while at Duke, TAed for him once, and he served on my dissertation committee) has a blistering response to MoveOn in the Boston Globe. I'll let Feaver speak for himself:
The MoveOn.org ad is vicious, and would garner comment even if it were merely one more primal scream in the coarse blogosphere debate over Iraq. But it is not an angry e-mail or blog entry. It is a deliberate attack on the senior Army commander, in a major daily newspaper, with the intention of destroying as much of his credibility as possible so that his military advice could be more easily rejected by antiwar members of Congress.

The attack was part of an elaborate effort to undermine public support for the Iraq war, and was foreshadowed by an unnamed Democratic senator who told a reporter, "No one wants to call [Petraeus] a liar on national TV . . . The expectation is that the outside groups will do this for us." The effort is funded by powerful special interests, and has all the trappings of a major political campaign.

Precisely because it is so vicious, so public, and so deliberate, the attack on Petraeus cannot be ignored by either side in the Iraq debate. Supporters of the war are duty-bound, like Joseph Welch, to rise and ask of war opponents, "Have you left no sense of decency?" Antiwar members of Congress, like Senator McCarthy's allies, are obliged to answer.

Let us be clear. It is legitimate to grill Petraeus on his testimony and to ask him tough questions about the strategy he has been pursuing. It is legitimate to disagree with him, or to conclude that an alternative course of action has a better chance of advancing US interests in the region. Healthy civil-military relations do not depend on accepting uncritically anything a senior military officer says. Quite the opposite, they depend on a full and frank exchange of views.

It is not legitimate, however, and it is exceedingly corrosive of healthy civil-military relations to question the general's patriotism when his views differ from yours and are inconvenient for one's political agenda.

This is a defining moment for the antiwar faction. They can continue on the path on to which they have veered, repeating some of the worst mistakes in American history. Or they can make a clean break with the past, police their own ranks, and promote a healthy, critical, public debate about the best way forward in Iraq.

MoveOn's website now has an annotated version of the ad, in which documentation is provided for each of the claims. But MoveOn's response is far from convincing. MoveOn claims that "every independent report on the ground situation in Iraq shows that the surge strategy has failed," and links are provided to the recent reports from the GAO, NIE, and CSIS. But these reports do not conclude that the surge has failed. Rather, they detail how much progress has been made, and what areas are still lagging behind. But such detail does not in and of itself constitute failure. Failure is a political question, a conclusion arrived at by setting goals, judging progress towards those goals, and determining whether further and increased effort will help advance towards those goals.

For example, the GAO report concludes that the Iraqi government has met 3, partially met 4, and has not meet 11 of the 18 benchmarks established. It also concludes that the surge is partially responsible for those results. Does that constitute success or not? The GAO report does not, as it should not, tell us. That is for Congress to decide.

MoveOn continues by claiming "the General claims a reduction in violence. That’s because, according to the New York Times, the Pentagon has adopted a bizarre formula for keeping tabs on violence. For example, deaths by car bombs don’t count." But the New York Times didn't make that claim. Paul Krugman did. True, he did so in the pages of the Times. But that claim does not come from the reporting of the Times. We don't know where Krugman got his information. We don't know what confirmation he has for his claims. An op-ed writer making a claim in his column does represent the efforts of the newspaper as a whole.

Finally, the crux of MoveOn's argument: "Most importantly, General Petraeus will not admit what everyone knows; Iraq is mired in an unwinnable religious civil war. " Here MoveOn reveals itself as Feaver correctly understands. MoveOn believes that Iraq is lost; therefore anyone who disagrees with that opinion is not only wrong but willfully ignorant of the oh-so-obvious truth.

Disagreeing with Petraeus is, as Feaver notes, healthy and legitimate. But MoveOn is anything but. If Congress concludes that the surge is not working, it can act within its constitutional powers to bring the troops home. But slandering and insulting Petraeus is not the way to achieve that end.

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