Who's the Huckster for This High-Interest War?

On college campuses, credit-card companies entice naive undergrads into signing up for super-high-interest-rate credit cards by giving away "perceived high-value items" such as t-shirts or coffee mugs. They're called perceived high-value items because they really aren't worth as much as people assume. Their only purpose is to distract from the terrible terms in the fine print of the contract you're signing.

Someone's word on the Afghanistan escalation is a perceived high-value item, either Petraeus' or President Obama's, or both.

The president's December 2009 decision to add 30,000 more troops on top of his prior troop increase was always the wrong decision, but in the course of making that decision, he made an explicit deal with the restless American voter:

"And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home."

General Petraeus explicitly agreed to this timeline before the December 2009 announcement of the latest troop increase:

"The only way we'll consider this is if we get the troops in and out in a shorter time frame," Obama said.

Obama was moving out of his probing mode and toward conclusions and eventually presidential orders... [T]he Pentagon was to present a "targeted" plan for protecting population centers, training Afghan security forces, and beginning a real -- not a token -- withdrawal within 18 months of the escalation.

[The president said:] "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"

"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.

... The commanders couldn't say they didn't have enough time to make the escalation work because they had specifically said, under explicit questioning, that they did.

Now, with their strategy limping embarrassingly toward quagmire, the generals are putting on a full-court press in the media, pushing for more time and resources, to redefine the president's explicit promise to limit the troop increase to 18 months, and finally to have him break his word to the American people. Petraeus especially has worked to lower expectations for the troop reduction, most recently telling the BBC that:

Well, I think it's very important to remember what July 2011 is. That's a date when a process begins, nothing more, nothing less. It's not the date when the American forces begin an exodus and look for the exit and a light to turn off on the way out of the room. It's a date when a process of transition of some tasks to some Afghan forces in those areas where the conditions allow it.

If Petraeus succeeds in this redefinition, this version of July 2011, the "transition of some tasks," could be fulfilled by American military accountants being replaced by Afghan paper-pushers. This isn't what the president promised at West Point.

When asked by the BBC whether he'd consider saying we can't begin a significant troop withdrawal in July 2011, he said, "Come July 2011, I will offer the president my best professional military advice."

In other words, "Sure, I might." The general is couching his desire to break his word in palatable, well-framed language. After all, who could argue that a general shouldn't offer his best military advice? But this conversation isn't happening in a vacuum. During the decision-making process that produced the time-limited escalation strategy, Petraeus explicitly told the president (and through him, all of us other civilians to whom the military supposedly answers) that he would not be pushing against troop reductions to begin in July 2011. Petraeus obviously no longer feels constrained by the word he gave President Obama in the Oval Office.

Lt. Gen. Bill Caldwell and General James Conway also piled on this week. According to the AP, "Caldwell told reporters that Afghan army and police forces won't reach sufficient numbers until Oct. 31, 2011 -- three months after Obama's deadline to start U.S. withdrawals." Conway said whoever leaves Afghanistan in July 2011, it won't be the Marines.

Only two credible possibilities exist:

  1. The generals told the president whatever they thought he wanted to hear to get him to send more troops and resources to this costly, futile war, or
  2. The president told the American people whatever he thought they needed to hear to mollify their growing opposition to the war and get some political space for an escalation.

No one in their right mind could put the account given by Jonathan Alter in The Promise next to the messages coming from Petraeus in his media blitz and see anything other than a blatant breaking of his word. Not only has he consistently done his best, especially in the last few months, to define down the July 2011 withdrawal component of the escalation plan, but he's explicitly said that he most certainly will suggest staying longer than 18 months in Afghanistan if he feels like it.

Similarly, no one in their right mind would read the president's West Point announcement and come away with the understanding that the president meant that as little as "a couple thousand" troops, or about two percent of them, would come home in July 2011. To opine for 427 words (yes, I counted) about the war's deep costs to our economy and the concordant need to limit it's impact and then try to get away with redefining your promise to as little as a two-percent cost reduction qualifies as used-car hucksterism of the lowest sort -- the kind that tricks people into a product that kills lots of people and leaves the survivors broke.

The only way for General Petraeus to not be a word-breaker in this situation is for Alter to have badly botched his account of the exchanges between Obama and the general. Of course, anything is possible, and good reporters can sometimes still get the facts wrong.

But, if that's the case, that would leave us with a disturbing picture of an administration using perceived high-value assurances of a reduction in expenditures in Afghanistan just to get us to consent to the escalation.

We'll know whether this is true by watching the rhetoric of Petraeus and Obama over the coming weeks. If Petraeus is yanked into line and adjusts his message to align with that given by the president during the West Point announcement, we can be assured that Obama is a man of his word. However, if we see administration rhetoric drifting instead toward Petraeus', watch out. There are already some troubling signs of this trend, especially Vice President Biden shifting from, "In July of 2011 you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it. Bet. On. It." to "It could be as few as a couple thousand." But maybe we can chalk this up to a momentary lapse in fortitude in the face of an incredulous and bloviating Beltway bluster chorus.

On Afghanistan, either the general or the president (or both) is a huckster for this high-interest war. We'll know from the White House's response to this military media blitz just who the huckster really is.

Below is an excerpt from President Obama's December 2009 West Point speech, just to refresh your memory. If you're tired of this war that's not making of safer and that's not worth the costs, join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook.

And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

...[S]ome call for a more dramatic and open-ended escalation of our war effort -- one that would commit us to a nation-building project of up to a decade. I reject this course because it sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost, and what we need to achieve to secure our interests. Furthermore, the absence of a time frame for transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security, and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.

As President, I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests. And I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I don't have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I'm mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who -- in discussing our national security -- said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs."

Over the past several years, we have lost that balance. We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy. In the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.

All told, by the time I took office the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan approached a trillion dollars. Going forward, I am committed to addressing these costs openly and honestly. Our new approach in Afghanistan is likely to cost us roughly $30 billion for the military this year, and I'll work closely with Congress to address these costs as we work to bring down our deficit.

But as we end the war in Iraq and transition to Afghan responsibility, we must rebuild our strength here at home. Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power. It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry. And it will allow us to compete in this century as successfully as we did in the last. That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended -- because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own.