By Stephen J. Sniegoski
As we move past the mid-term elections, the question as to the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012 will come to the fore. Obama’s approval rating is falling. And given the economic situation it is very unlikely that there will be any significant improvement in how he is viewed by the voters. Even if increased federal spending might be able to keep the unemployment level stationary or lower it slightly for the short term—i.e., until the 2012 election—the ballooning deficit will still turn substantial numbers of voters against him because of their fears of what will happen in the future. On the other hand, any type of austerity program, or even the elimination of stimulus funding, would probably lead to increased unemployment in the short term—at least up to the 2012 election. In short, Obama is quite vulnerable in 2012. However, he still has substantial support, and despite his escalating problems, he would likely defeat any candidate without widespread appeal, especially those whose strength does not go beyond the conservative Republican base.
And the Republican Party currently lacks politically attractive candidates. For example, Sarah Palin has enthusiastic support from the Republican base, but has too many negatives to win the general election, even against a weakened Obama. The same would apply to a candidate such as Mike Huckabee. Mitt Romney might appear as more moderate, but his flop in the Republican primaries in 2008 does not bode well for his chances against Obama in 2012. And it is not clear that the Republicans could win the presidential election with a lesser known candidate and simply rely on the public’s hostility toward Obama’s policies.
It is quite likely that Republican success in the congressional elections this year will actually help Obama in 2012, since Obama could blame the failing economy on the Republicans obstruction of his spending programs to recharge the economy. This tactic has been used successfully in the past, most notably by President Harry Truman in 1948, who successfully ran against the Republican-controlled “do-nothing” Eightieth Congress for blocking his proposed programs.
In the current political climate, the best candidate for the Republicans would be a non-politician, General David Petraeus. Now Petraeus’ name has been bandied about as a candidate and the general has frequently asserted that he would not run for office. Of course, one wouldn’t expect him to say otherwise and the remainder of this article will provide evidence that his running for the presidency is very much a possibility.
For various reasons, Petraeus would make a much better candidate than the Republican alternatives. First, he does not have the right-wing ideological baggage. No one knows what Petraeus stands for on the domestic scene. In fact, Petraeus has said that he is actually a non-voter so that he would not be considered biased toward any of his civilian commanders. However, it has been noted that he is registered to vote as a Republican in his home state of New Hampshire, the state which holds the first presidential primary.
In short, Petraeus has the ideological flexibility to be able to fit his political needs of the moment. To win over Republicans, he will have to place himself on the Center-Right, but not so far Right as to weaken his appeal to the general public. But would such positioning weaken him with the Republican grass roots and thus preclude his nomination? His military background definitely resonates with the Right. And the Right’s hostility to Obama would be apt to make it more supportive of a Republican likely to beat him, such as Petraeus, than a candidate who, though more in line with its views, would appear a long-shot to achieve victory. While the Republican Right is often characterized as being entranced by ideological purity, its members have been quite willing to support candidates who were less than pure, such as Bush the Elder in 1988 and McCain in 2008. Even the Younger Bush proclaimed himself a “Compassionate Conservative,” which implied that he supported more government welfare programs than the usual conservative. Given the Right’s intense dislike of Obama, it would seem that its members would be even more willing in 2012 to eschew ideological purity to defeat their bête noire.
It is of political significance that Petraeus stands out as having a number of personal attributes that should make him appeal not only to the Right but to the average American voter, and, very importantly, to the media elite whose view shapes that of the general public. If the media elite likes an individual, it tends to spin news about that person in a positive way, downplaying, or even ignoring, anything negative. It would be highly unlikely that any other Republican candidate would enjoy such favorable media treatment in a race against Obama.
Among the positive personal traits for which Petraeus is noted is his academic intelligence, which far exceeds that of the average military officer or politician. In high school, he was a member of the National Honor Society and was named a National Merit Scholarship finalist. Petraeus graduated in the top five percent of his class at West Point in 1974, while managing to finish a rigorous pre-med program. (He did not go on to medical school, and explained that he had taken the program because it was a difficult challenge. Petraeus is not simply intelligent but strives to excel at everything he does, mental and physical.)
Petraeus earned the General George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Class of 1983 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And he has earned a master's degree in public administration in 1985 and a PhD in international relations in 1987 from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Petraeus’ doctoral dissertation, "The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam: A Study of Military Influence and the Use of Force in the Post-Vietnam Era," dealt with the influence of the Vietnam War on military thinking regarding the use of force, which ultimately became known as the “Powell Doctrine.” The “Powell Doctrine” held that the U.S. should only go to war if its vital national interests were threatened and then the force used should be overwhelming, accompanied by strong public support and a clear exit strategy. Petraeus rejected this all-or-nothing approach to war and believed that the US should be prepared for small wars and insurgencies. In this, he explicitly identified with the thinking of neocon military strategist Eliot Cohen, who would become his friend and now supporter. (It should be noted that Cohen is a major proponent of war against Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, coining the term, “World War IV.”) The insurgency in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, which the US military was unprepared to handle, brought back a demand for counterinsurgency warfare, the specifics of which would be provided by Petraeus.
Petraeus oversaw the revision of the military’s field manual on counterinsurgency in 2006. And he would authorize the teaching of this manual’s counterinsurgency doctrine at the Army’s schools and training programs. As a result, Petraeus is now considered the military’s guru of counterinsurgency. The new counterinsurgency doctrine represents a near total rethinking of the way the United States should wage war. The field manual’s key tenets are simple, but very radical. It places its emphasis on protecting civilians over killing the enemy. The military is expected to use minimum, not maximum, force. Such concepts come very close to nation-building. Petraeus has lent his name to what has now become the Army’s dominant approach to war, the “Petraeus Doctrine,” which has supplanted the “Powell Doctrine.”
But Petraeus is not simply a military scholar but also a practitioner. He employed his counterinsurgency theories in Iraq, where he developed the reputation as a “warrior-scholar.” During the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division in the Army’s move on Baghdad, being involved in heavy fighting. Following Baghdad’s fall, Petraeus would take responsibility for running the military sector around Mosul, in northern Iraq. There he would apply his views on counterinsurgency against the budding insurgency, which included the development of Iraqi security forces capable of protecting the inhabitants of the region.
As a result of his apparent success in Iraq and his leadership in the new counterinsurgency strategy, he would be made head of US forces in Iraq in February 2007, where he would oversee the “surge.” It is his much acclaimed success with the surge that has given him his popular reputation for military brilliance.
Now those few who have actually studied the situation in Iraq know that there has not been a real solution there. The rationale for the surge was that improved security would provide the opportunity for the central government in Iraq to work for national reconciliation among the major factions—Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. This clearly did not take place. What the surge actually achieved was temporary pacification—in large part due to the bribing of Sunni sheiks to stop their attacks. Serious ethnic and religious tensions remain, which are apt to explode at any time, and the level of actual violence has recently been on the upswing. Despite this reality, however, the surge has been portrayed by the mainstream media as an overwhelming success.
Not only does Petraeus appear to be an attractive candidate, but he also has the support of the powerful neoconservatives, who see him as a replacement for John McCain, though their support has yet to be heavily publicized. McCain had surrounded himself with neocon advisers and undoubtedly the neocons expect the same from Petraeus. Political commentator Kelley B. Vlahos writes in “President Petraeus?”(May 18, 2010) that the general “probably won’t become the Republican nominee without some heavy lifting from the star-maker machinery at AEI [American Enterprise Institute], which would enjoy nothing more than to get its own pocket general into the White House.”
Of course, it would be the whole neocon network, which consists of a number of think tanks and media outlets and has penetrated the mainstream media, that would be promoting Petraeus for president. As I point out in my book, “The Transparent Cabal,” the neocon network was very effective in promoting its Middle East war agenda. It is not omnipotent since it could not put McCain in the White House, but with Petraeus in 2012, the neocons have a better candidate to work with and a much more favorable political environment.
What is Petraeus’ connection to the neocons? Illustrating Petraeus’ support by the neocons was the neocon American Enterprise Institute’s conferring on him its highest honor for 2010, the Irving Kristol Award. This yearly award is presented at the Institute's annual gala dinner, which was attended by 2000 guests, including the leading neocon luminaries and supporters, and is regarded as a major event in the Washington social scene.
It should be noted that in January 2008, neocon Bill Kristol wrote an article in “The Weekly Standard” (December 31, 2007 – January 7, 2008), titled “Gen. David Petraeus, Man of the Year,” claiming that Time Magazine should have selected Petraeus as the leading person of the previous year, rather than Time’s choice of Vladimir Putin, because of Petraeus’ success in implementing the surge in Iraq. In ebullient praise for the general, Kristol stated that “The counterinsurgency campaign that Petraeus and [General Raymond T.] Odierno conceived and executed in 2007 was as comprehensive a counterinsurgency strategy as has ever been executed.”
Petraeus’ connection to the neocons traces back to at least his aforementioned connection to Eliot Cohen, who coined the term “World War IV” to apply to the US war against Israel’s Islamic enemies in the Middle East. When he became the commander of American troops in Iraq in February 2007, the surge he would implement had been formulated at the neocon American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Its principal developers were Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian at the AEI, and General Jack Keane, former vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and it was presented to President George W. Bush in mid-December 2006.
In his award acceptance speech at the AEI gala dinner, Petraeus would give gushing thanks to the institute: “In the fall of 2006, AEI scholars helped develop the concept for what came to be known as ‘the surge.’ Fred and Kim Kagan and their team, which included retired General Jack Keane, prepared a report that made the case for additional troops in Iraq. As all here know, it became one of those rare think-tank products that had a truly strategic impact.” It might be noted that he gave Frederick Kagan’s wife Kimberly top billing along with her husband, although she provided much less input to the report than had General Keane, who had been a mentor of Petraeus.
See “President Petraeus?,” by Kelley B. Vlahos, May 18, 2010
However, it should be pointed out that Kimberly Kagan had done much to promote Petraeus, writing periodic reports from Iraq in 2007 on the progress of the surge for the “The Weekly Standard.” Despite Kimberly Kagan’s obvious vested interest in making the surge look successful, Kelley Vlahos observes that “her reports were largely passed off as research, even journalism, rather than political ammunition, and she wrote a book about it last year , ‘The Surge: A Military History,’ another encomium to Petraeus and Co. and the altar of COIN.”
“The Two Faces of Kimberly Kagan,” by Kelley B. Vlahos, September 29, 2009
Kimberly Kagan would advocate a comparable “surge” in Afghanistan. As Vlahos writes: “Kimberly Kagan has increasingly become a spear point for advancing the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. And why not? She is young, attractive in that wonky, austere Washingtonian way, and seemingly unflappable as she discharges fusillades of talking points like a machine gun. One look at her March 2007 performance on Washington Journal circa Surge I and it’s clear why Kagan has replaced the old neoconservative guard as a primary surrogate for the cause.”
“The Two Faces of Kimberly Kagan,” by Kelley B. Vlahos, September 29, 2009
In recognition of her importance, Kagan served on General Stanley McChrystal's strategic assessment team for Afghanistan in 2009.
In his speech at AEI, Petraeus hinted that he might be interested in the presidency. Howard LaFranchi of the Christian Science Monitor remarked: “The late Mr. Kristol's son, Bill Kristol, noted in a tribute to the award's three decades of honorees that none has ever gone on to become president. He then added to applause and laughter, ‘Perhaps this curious and glaring omission will be rectified.’
“Rather than simply letting that moment pass, Petraeus said upon taking the podium that in mulling over the theme for his speech, ‘It never crossed my mind, Bill, to talk about what you were suggesting.’
“The line was delivered with a smile.”
By Howard LaFranchi, “Petraeus for President? Army General Keeps Speculation Alive,” Christian Science Monitor, May 16, 2010
Another neocon who has a close connection to Petraeus is author and commentator Max Boot. Petraeus has taken Boot on numerous Department of Defense-funded trips to Iraq and Afghanistan. Boot has become a strong proponent of Petraeus’ counterinsurgency doctrine. Along with Fred and Kimberly Kagan, Boot co-authored an op-ed piece, “How to Surge the Taliban.” in the New York Times (March 12, 2009), advocating a “surge in Afghanistan.”
As Petraeus’ recently-revealed email correspondence with Boot indicates, the general had relied upon Boot to maintain a good relationship with pro-Israeli Jewish Americans. Petraeus’ email correspondence with Boot was attached (presumably accidentally) in an email response to Israel lobby critic, James Morris, which the latter later provided to Philip Weiss of the noted Mondoweiss blog.
In an email exchange with Boot, written after the publication of Petraeus’ alleged testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the negative impact of Israel on US forces in the Middle East (which would seem to be fundamentally accurate), Petraeus sought to counter any possible negative reaction from the Israel lobby by professing that he never made such statements and asking Boot to help him remain in the good graces of pro-Israel American Jewry. He queried Boot: “Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night? And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps.” Boot, acting as if he understood the collective mind of the pro-Zionist American Jewish community, assured Petraeus that publicizing this additional obeisance was unnecessary, and that he would take care of any misconceptions. Petraeus responded with a “Roger” and a smiley-face.
Very shortly thereafter, Max Boot posted an article on the Commentary blog, titled, "A Lie: David Petraeus, Anti-Israel." It attacked "misleading commentary that continues to emerge, attributing anti-Israeli sentiment to Gen. David Petraeus." It dismissed the "posture statement," which contained information about Israel’s actions being harmful to US military policy, as the work of "Petraeus's staff," not Petraeus himself. In an effort to show that Petraeus personally held a contrary view, Boot provided Petraeus' oral testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he downplayed the Israel/Palestine conflict as a cause of hostility to U.S. forces in the Middle East.
It must be stressed that this correspondence indicated not only Petraeus’ close, personal tie to and political dependence on a neocon journalist, whom he referred to familiarly as “Max,” but that he has high political aspirations and perceives the pro-Israel American Jewish community to be very powerful politically.
But just wanting to be president will not make Petraeus the nominee of the Republican Party in 2012. The question is: How does Petraeus go about getting the Republican nomination when he cannot be an official candidate while he is a general in the US army on the other side of the world in Afghanistan?
This task was much easier back in 1952 for Eisenhower when an individual could win with the support of the party bosses and primaries did not mean so much. Eisenhower, who had been serving as Supreme Commander of NATO, did not actually return to the U.S. to campaign until the spring of 1952.
But my thinking is that the neocons, and other powerful supporters, could manipulate the system in such a way as to get the nomination for Petraeus. Perhaps, the scenario would go something like this. Petraeus would have his name put in the running for the Republican presidential nomination without his formal announcement. In the early period of the 2012 campaign, Petraeus would remain behind the scenes, with the neocons and others promoting him. Polls showing that Petraeus was the only Republican candidate who could definitely defeat Obama would have an impact on the party leadership and the grass roots. Moreover the media would be focused on the alleged dangers of the tea party movement. Petraeus would be portrayed as a man of moderation who would keep the right-wing radicals in check.
At the opportune moment, Petraeus would announce his retirement from the military and formally enter into the political arena. No matter what the situation was in Afghanistan, he would claim that he was acting for the best of his country, and there would be an immediate popular groundswell of support for him, which would be heavily publicized by the mainstream as well as the conservative media.
If he started late he might not win a majority or even a plurality of the Republican delegates in the state primary elections. However, if no candidate could obtain an outright majority of delegates, he would gain increasing support for the nomination after the first ballot because of the Republicans’ recognition that he was their only ticket to victory in the general election. Deals would be made with some of the leading Republican candidates, who, realizing that their winning the nomination was close to nil, would release their delegates at the earliest moment legally possible “for the good of the party.”
Obviously, I cannot foretell the future. And everything I have written would be obviated by a U.S. war on Iran, in which Obama would provide the neocons and the rest of the Israel lobby with exactly what they want. However, it definitely seems that Petraeus is preparing for the presidency, has definite backers, and, at present, would be the Republican candidate with the best chance of winning. This does not guarantee that he will be the nominee in 2012. However, I think he is a more likely choice than any other person mentioned at this time. And if he were to become president, the question would be: how far would he go to implement the neocon Middle East war agenda?