David Howell Petraeus, general in the United States Army and commander of the Multi-National Force Iraq finds himself in the middle of a raging political firestorm between Democrats and Republicans battling over control of US policy in Iraq. The 33-year army veteran has become the public face of the Bush administration's "stay the course" policy in Iraq, advocating that a large scale presence of US forces is essential for now and well into the future.
Petraeus, having been inserted so publicly and visibly into the political arena as spokesman for the continuation of our involvement in Iraq, has found himself the target of stinging personal attacks such as MoveOn.org's "Petraeus or Betray-Us" ad that appeared in the New York Times. Such attacks were predictable given the General's apparent acquiescence in becoming the chief spokesman for the White House in what should be an entirely political debate (i.e., no generals invited) centered on the the question of the continued involvement of US forces in Iraq.
After all, in America, it's rule by the people, not the generals. And the people's representatives, the 435 members of the House, the 100 members of the Senate, and the President should be the ones to decide how many troops we will keep in Iraq and for how long. The input of the generals is of course informative and essential, but it should be funneled through the proper channels, namely the civilian leader of America's impressive war-making machine, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates should have been the one to deliver testimony on the state of our mission in Iraq on Capitol Hill last week, not Petraeus. I have the utmost of respect and admiration for General Petraeus as a warrior. I have little respect or admiration for him as a politician. Surely he must understand how he is being used by the Bush White House to promote the continuation of a war that has become deeply unpopular with the American people. Petraeus has done an admirable job of reintroducing the doctrine of counterinsurgency warfare to a military that was determined to forget everything it had learned about it after the Vietnam War. For that, he deserves a great deal of credit.
But somewhere along the line, Petraeus agreed to take on the unwelcome task of becoming the public face for the Bush administration's policy in Iraq which at its core consists of the continued and indefinite sacrifice of US troops for a costly and open-ended nation building effort in a country where the people clearly are not wholeheartedly committed to that same effort. In doing so, Petraeus has exposed himself and the institution he surely loves and admirably represents to great peril. The military and its leaders cannot afford to be perceived as political tools of one party or the other in the ever-persistent partisan warfare that characterizes our great democracy. Their job should and must always be the pursuit of the objectives spelled out to them by the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, White House and the Congress.
Why? Because that's how the Founding Fathers wanted it. They didn't want the decision to go to war to be an easy one. They created an elaborate system of checks and balances to ensure that the government would not for long pursue an unpopular war that had the widespread disapproval of the public.
Which leads us back to General Petraeus and his role in the current debate over our future involvement in Iraq. Is he a sycophant of the Bush administration's relentless push for endless war in the Middle East, or is he a virtuous saint leading a righteous war on terror against those who would be fighting us over here if we weren't fighting them over there?
Answer: neither. He's a capable military man who may have found himself star-crossed by the double-talkers in this administration who coerced him into a political battle where he himself knows he should not be. So my message to the General is this: please reconsider your position in our democracy as it is described in the Constitution and under our rule of law. Raise questions the next time that anyone asks you to carry their water in an essentially political debate over the necessity and wisdom of our nation's continuing involvement in any war, and please politely defer to the civilian leadership that by law instructs you on how to carry out the will of the people as it is expressed through our elected representatives in Congress and the Executive Branch.
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