Salt Shaker, Please

I’m sorry, but this story from the Inter-Press Service (the what?) stinks like three-day-old fish left out on the counter in the middle of July:

CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, supported by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, tried to convince President Barack Obama that he had to back down from his campaign pledge to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months at an Oval Office meeting Jan. 21.

But Obama informed Gates, Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that he wasn’t convinced and that he wanted Gates and the military leaders to come back quickly with a detailed 16-month plan, according to two sources who have talked with participants in the meeting.

Obama’s decision to override Petraeus’s recommendation has not ended the conflict between the president and senior military officers over troop withdrawal, however. There are indications that Petraeus and his allies in the military and the Pentagon, including Gen. Ray Odierno, now the top commander in Iraq, have already begun to try to pressure Obama to change his withdrawal policy.

A network of senior military officers is also reported to be preparing to support Petraeus and Odierno by mobilising public opinion against Obama’s decision.

Petraeus was visibly unhappy when he left the Oval Office, according to one of the sources. A White House staffer present at the meeting was quoted by the source as saying, “Petraeus made the mistake of thinking he was still dealing with George Bush instead of with Barack Obama.”

Petraeus, Gates and Odierno had hoped to sell Obama on a plan that they formulated in the final months of the Bush administration that aimed at getting around a key provision of the U.S.-Iraqi withdrawal agreement signed envisioned re-categorising large numbers of combat troops as support troops. That subterfuge was by the United States last November while ostensibly allowing Obama to deliver on his campaign promise.

Gates and Mullen had discussed the relabeling scheme with Obama as part of the Petraeus-Odierno plan for withdrawal they had presented to him in mid-December, according to a Dec. 18 New York Times story.

Obama decided against making any public reference to his order to the military to draft a detailed 16-month combat troop withdrawal policy, apparently so that he can announce his decision only after consulting with his field commanders and the Pentagon.

The first clear indication of the intention of Petraeus, Odierno and their allies to try to get Obama to amend his decision came on Jan. 29 when the New York Times published an interview with Odierno, ostensibly based on the premise that Obama had indicated that he was “open to alternatives”.

The Times reported that Odierno had “developed a plan that would move slower than Mr. Obama’s campaign timetable” and had suggested in an interview “it might take the rest of the year to determine exactly when United States forces could be drawn down significantly”.

The opening argument by the Petraeus-Odierno faction against Obama’s withdrawal policy was revealed the evening of the Jan. 21 meeting when retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, one of the authors of the Bush troop surge policy and a close political ally and mentor of Gen. Petraeus, appeared on the Lehrer News Hour to comment on Obama’s pledge on Iraq combat troop withdrawal.

Keane, who had certainly been briefed by Petraeus on the outcome of the Oval Office meeting, argued that implementing such a withdrawal of combat troops would “increase the risk rather dramatically over the 16 months”. He asserted that it would jeopardise the “stable political situation in Iraq” and called that risk “not acceptable”.

The assertion that Obama’s withdrawal policy threatens the gains allegedly won by the Bush surge and Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq will apparently be the theme of the campaign that military opponents are now planning.

Keane, the Army Vice-Chief of Staff from 1999 to 2003, has ties to a network of active and retired four-star Army generals, and since Obama’s Jan. 21 order on the 16-month withdrawal plan, some of the retired four-star generals in that network have begun discussing a campaign to blame Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq for the ultimate collapse of the political “stability” that they expect to follow U.S. withdrawal, according to a military source familiar with the network’s plans.

The source says the network, which includes senior active duty officers in the Pentagon, will begin making the argument to journalists covering the Pentagon that Obama’s withdrawal policy risks an eventual collapse in Iraq. That would raise the political cost to Obama of sticking to his withdrawal policy.

If Obama does not change the policy, according to the source, they hope to have planted the seeds of a future political narrative blaming his withdrawal policy for the “collapse” they expect in an Iraq without U.S. troops.

Maybe my bullshit radar is oversensitive after being fooled by that Los Angeles Times article suggesting that Pres. Obama was planning to keep renditions as a part of the C.I.A.’s intelligence arsenal. That story turned out to be a punk job on the LAT by unknown sources — possibly Bush hold-outs who have “burrowed” into civil service jobs in the Obama administration.

I find it very hard to believe that Obama’s top generals would be conspiring to undermine his Iraq withdrawal policy — I mean, guys, there’s a name for that kind of behavior, as Mark Adams points out.

What’s interesting about the IPS article is the complacent response on the right to behavior that, if true, would unquestionably qualify as insubordination at best and treason at worst. Doesn’t seem to bother that crowd.

Here’s John at Power Line:

Take it for what it’s worth. Given how well things are going in Iraq, and how little interest Obama’s voters seem to have in holding him to campaign promises, I find it hard to believe that he can’t find an approach that will satisfy the generals while yet providing him with a fig leaf.

Still, of all of the foreign policy snafus that have plagued the early days of Obama’s administration, the possibility of a public conflict with General Petraeus is the most immediately threatening. Gen. Petraeus got the loudest applause of anyone who was introduced at the Super Bowl yesterday.

The problem here, according to Jules Crittenden, is that Obama is a “novice-in-chief” who is “opt[ing] to ignore his generals.”

A.J. Strata, same song:

Obama has been wrong about Iraq from square one. He was shocked when The Surge and The Awakening turned al Qaeda from the future of Islam in Iraq into the enemy of Islam in Iraq. Stunned.

But what has me stumped is how stupid you have to be not to note you were wrong and adjust your thinking. And President Obama is trying to pretend he knows about military decisions and processes, when it is clear he doesn’t have the foggiest idea.

Instead of listening to career experts, he is stomping his foot and telling everyone he is the President so therefore he is a genius in all matters[.] …

Tom Maguire is the only right-wing blogger responding to the IPS piece who is at all suspicious of it (and also to his credit, he links to bloggers on the left, like John Cole, who are also suspicious). I don’t necessarily buy Maguire’s explanation, either — he asserts that the author of the article — Gareth Porter, a rather well-known leftie journalist — “is trying to gin up the anti-war crowd.”

I don’t know much at all about Porter’s journalistic integrity — I’ve heard his name before; that’s about the extent of what I know about him — but the Wikipedia article on Porter that Maguire links to does indicate that Porter has a somewhat spotty record as far as common sense is concerned — he denied (quite emphatically) initial reports of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia.

So it’s possible that he swallowed a load of malarkey fed to him by unknown sources for unknown reasons.

At any rate, given that the Inter-Press Service, which I’ve never heard of, is so far the only media source reporting this story, and given that the article is full of breathtakingly serious accusations with almost no named sources, I’m taking it with a full shaker of salt.

16 Responses to “Salt Shaker, Please”

  1. Tom Maguire says:

    I don’t necessarily buy Maguire’s explanation, either — he asserts that the author of the article — Gareth Porter, a rather well-known leftie journalist — “is trying to gin up the anti-war crowd.”

    Well I am not in love with that explanation either – maybe he is just trying to gin up traffic for the Inter-Press Service – but we seem to agree that someone is spinning someone for some reason. Yeah, I’m on a limb with that…

    What’s interesting about the IPS article is the complacent response on the right to behavior that, if true, would unquestionably qualify as insubordination at best and treason at worst.

    Someone in John Cole’s comments mentioned Gen. Shinseki in that context.

  2. Mark says:

    It may well be an attempt to stir up anti-war sentiment. As or more likely, it is borne out of what is obviously a fundamental distrust of military brass that leaves him particularly susceptible to believing any allegations of wrongdoing by that brass.

    What makes this story particularly suspicious is that it is based on a January 21 meeting between Obama, Petraeus, Gates and Mullen. Of those four people (or their staff), which of them would have chosen to leak the story to an anti-military and vehemently anti-war reporter from a relatively low-level news agency? The story hurts Obama, so you can rest assured no one on his staff was the source; and Petraeus, Gates, and Mullen (and their staff) even if the story were true, would hardly choose to leak the story to someone like Porter.

  3. gcotharn says:

    Well, now you’re (temporarily) as suspicious of reporting as I am. Predicting future events is difficult. On this story, there’s little way to judge veracity, or who’s spinning whom. To see the truth, we will just have to wait and let events play out.

    If I am placing very small, very guess filled bet, I am betting the story is sourced from 4th hand info from an underling who heard about the meeting and has an antiwar agenda. I’m guess-betting Gareth Porter put in damaging info/gossip about both sides so as to protect the identity of his fourth hand source. I’m guessing Gareth Porter sort of guessed at details his fourth hand source could not confirm, so as to round out the narrative with some plausibility. B/c the entire story uses unnamed source(s), Porter can make up some plausible detail to round things out, and who can ever prove he did that? No one.

    Barack is impossible to predict in many areas, and Iraq and Afghan policy is one of them. He has retained Gates and appointed generals to important posts, and therefore I am suspicious of a story that he will hew closely to his 16 month campaign promise – but who really knows? No one. No one knows how Barack thinks. Will Barack be reticent to fight in Afghan, and pull everything out by saying he didn’t realize how bad the situation was in the “good” war? He could easily do that, and EVERYONE would believe Barack is telling the truth now, and that he never had a danged clue how difficult and how long term the situation truly is in Afghan. Conversely, will Barack keep his campaign promise and fight Afghan with vigor? Will Barack believe he must be militant in Afghan to prove to the world and to American voters that he has the necessary resolve to lead this nation? I’ve no clue. At this point, no one can predict Barack in this area. We will just have to see how things play out.

    Re: mutiny
    What else is new? The dirty secret about being POTUS is that you have a hell of a time directing Executive Branch institutions which follow their own policy preferences and fight you tooth and nail. If you want to govern what ostensibly are arms of the Executive, you’ve got to politically wrestle those arms into vulnerable positions in which they are forced to implement your policy.

    Repub presidents are often unable to get the State Dept. to follow the Repub presidents’ national policies. State Dept foreign service officers have many time advised foreign nations on strategy to get around policy a Repub. POTUS has implemented as U.S. foreign policy.

    Even Repub presidents have problems with a strong willed Defense Dept. which is expert at playing the Washington DC power game of leak and releak, leak and releak.

    Heck yes it’s mutiny – all of it: from State Dept to Defense Dept to CIA to God knows who else. None of it is very far removed from what MacArthur did before Truman fired him. Problem is: if you try to bring these infighters down for being mutinous, or even if you just try to force their hand too hard, they put vicious leaks into media which could politically destroy you – as the CIA attempted to do to Bush in the spring/summer before the 2004 election, and as it’s possible the Defense Dept has done with this Gareth Porter article, though at this point I doubt it.

    The movement of Petraeus to a position overseeing both Iraq and Afghan was actually a response to Barack’s statements, earlier in the year, that Petraeus is interested in Iraq success, but Barack would have to be interested in the overall strategic policy of the entire region including Afghan. The Defense Dept, with GWBs apparent blessing, appears to have pre-positioned everyone in place – Petraeus, Odierno, et al – to force Barack to see the Iraq policy through to completion in a fashion which the Defense Dept believes is reasonable and responsible. Now, I’m guessing Barack sort of agrees with the Defense Dept, and at any rate I’m guessing Barack doesn’t want to expend precious political capital fighting this particular fight. If Barack does want to fight this fight, we can all stand back and watch the fireworks. It will be semi spectacular.

  4. Kathy says:


    Gen. Shinseki — bad analogy (not yours, but I’m just sayin’).

    Shinseki did not conspire to undermine Pres. Bush’s Iraq war policies. He told Donald Rumsfeld that he was seriously lowballing the number of troops needed to succeed in Iraq. That’s not insubordination or treason. It’s giving one’s honest professional opinion on a matter of some importance.

  5. Kathy says:

    The story hurts Obama, so you can rest assured no one on his staff was the source; and Petraeus, Gates, and Mullen (and their staff) even if the story were true, would hardly choose to leak the story to someone like Porter.

    Yes, exactly. Plus, although I’m certainly no fan of David Petraeus’s as far as his enthusiasm for the Iraq war goes, or his belief that the U.S. should stay there — if indeed he does believe that — I do give him credit for more professionalism and integrity than to conspire to sabotage or undermine Pres. Obama’s plan for withdrawing from Iraq. I mean, it’s not impossible that I’m wrong about this, but he has always struck me as a very by-the-book, follow the chain of command kind of soldier. I just find it hard to believe that someone like that would be secretly planning what, in essence, is a coup against constitutionally mandated civilian control of the military.

  6. Fascist Hyena says:

    As a former career military officer, I would be extremely surprised if any active-duty senior officer publicly expressed any disagreement with the president’s policy, and I simply do not believe that any active-duty officers will attempt to “mobilize public support.”

    Any who did so would be guilty of insubordination and would (and should) be disciplined. As for “treason,” try to act like an adult on this one. It’s expressly defined in Article II, Section 3 of the constitution: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court. ” Good luck with that one.

  7. Kathy says:


    Two things:

    First, you write, “Well, now you’re (temporarily) as suspicious of reporting as I am.” That has a spin to it that does not accurately describe why I’m suspicious of this article. The fact is, I am NOT suspicious of reporting per se. I don’t automatically mistrust the accuracy of a media source because it’s the media. I am suspicious of this particular report, because, for specific substantive reasons that I went into in my post, it does not ring true.

    I do not automatically and by default disbelieve reporting because it is reporting. I am not biased against journalists or the news media. Quite the opposite: I cherish journalism because it’s essential to a healthy democracy. However, I do question any written report or public statement that does not accord with what I know or understand to be the facts, or that sounds improbable or implausible, or that does not seem to be adequately supported with sources. That goes just as much for Dana Perino or Dick Cheney or former Pres. Bush himself as it does for the press. I do not trustingly believe what anyone tells me if it does not sound right. At the same time, I do not stereotype groups such as “journalists” or “politicians” as liars by definition and thus to be distrusted as a matter of policy until proven worthy of not distrusting.

    What it all boils down to is this: I have critical thinking skills. I don’t disagree with almost everything you say because you are Greg Cotharn — I disagree with almost everything you say because very little of what you say makes sense or matches what I know to be real and true. Every now and then you say something that feels genuine and true to me, and when that happens I can recognize that that has happened because I have those critical thinking skills, and never abandoned them.

    Oh, and the second thing:

    Why do you consistently refer to Pres. Obama by his first name only? Would you say “George” or “John” or “Dick” when referring to former Pres. Bush, John McCain, or Dick Cheney?

  8. Kathy says:

    Fascist Hyena (great name),

    I agree with most of what you write, until you get to the definition of treason and advise me to “try to act like an adult on this one.” Aside from being a weirdly confrontational way of expressing disagreement, I feel that I need to remind you of the roughly 50 zillion times in the past eight years that Americans, both ordinary and well-known, have been called “traitors” and accused of “giving aid and comfort to the enemy” simply by exercising the rights guaranteed to them in the First Amendment. If it’s appropriate (as many on the right seemed to feel it was) to call MoveOn “traitors” for publishing an ad that referred to David Petraeus as “Gen. Betray-Us,” then I have difficulty understanding why it is un-adult-like to say that IF David Petraeus was part of a group that tried, or is trying to, mobilize public opinion against Pres. Obama’s plans to withdraw from Iraq, and IF David Petraeus is publicly putting it about that he is trying to change Obama’s mind about withdrawing from Iraq (and those are big IF’s), then David Petraeus in those hypotheticals would be doing something that could be accurately described as treason. Whether he, or anyone, would actually be guilty of treason would be, obviously, a matter of law for the courts to decide.

  9. gcotharn says:

    President Obama just feels like Barack to me, just as Bush feels like GWB (a nod to GWB’s heritage, in my mind). I think Barack is a cool name, and I like to say it and type it. Yet, that President Obama feels to me like a “Barack” is a nod to my perception of his lack of professional accomplishment; of his fraternity boy oily type of skating by on looks, flim-flam (blank slate) horse manure, charisma, and white-guilty whites eager to promote him based on skin color and fraternity boy slickness and congeniality; on his lack of knowledge of economics, of American history, of world history, of military history, to name a few. All this – including that I just like to say the name – adds up to his feeling like “Barack” to me. Barack is not as respectful as President Obama. Will consider changing my habit when commenting at your blog. It seems the graceful and classy thing to do. This is your space.

  10. Kathy says:

    Will consider changing my habit when commenting at your blog. It seems the graceful and classy thing to do. This is your space.

    That’s mighty white of you, Greg.

  11. gcotharn says:


  12. Fascist Hyena says:

    Kathy, I apologize for the confrontational tone, which was not called for. On the merits of the thing, if indeed all of the very big “IF’s” were satisfied, Petraeus should certainly be fired, and he would be disgraced in the eyes of his fellow officers, and probably in his own eyes. Just for the record, I am embarrassed each and every time my fellow jack-booted goose-steppers holler “treason” and “traitor,” though I confess I am a bit more alert to point out how silly such accusations are when they come from the Left. It is a word that ought not be used loosely, but often is. It has no application here.

    If Petraeus, Odierno and the Chiefs are very strenuously expressing to the president their views about a timetable for withdrawal, they are doing their duty. That’s the way it’s always worked, and should work. If their disagreements can’t be reconciled, and Petraeus feels it’s a deal-breaker, he should retire. Maybe he will. But I’d be astonished if he were ever party to any effort to sway public opinion on the issue. That’s just not the way it works among the professional officer corps.

  13. gcotharn says:

    @Fascist Hyena

    I agree the professional officer corps is professional and excellent.

    In this instance, I delineate between the professional officer corps and the very top of the Pentagon.

    Petraeus, and the top of the Pentagon, cannot complain up the chain of command. There is no up beyond Gates and President Obama. If Petraeus sees disastrous policy on it’s way to implementation; if Petraeus cannot stop such disaster through reasoning and salesmanship behind closed doors; Petraeus is then honor bound to go public about such disaster-in-the-making. Going public would politically damage President Obama. Yet, I see no other honorable choice for Petraeus in such a situation.

    Petraeus’ popularity gives him some power and leverage which could be used, if need arises, against President Obama. Using his power would not necessarily be dishonorable. Rather, b/c Petraeus has no chain of command above him which might be used, using the power of his popularity (and his reasoning) might be the honorable thing for Petraeus to do in certain situations.

    I don’t currently expect any dramatic showdown. I expect President Obama is somewhat sympathetic to the strategic concerns of his commanders, and wants to draw down from Iraq in a responsible fashion. But, we shall see. No one knows how President Obama thinks. He is yet a mystery even to his fans (not a one of whom, for instance, believe he opposes gay marriage). President Obama cannot predicted.

    Also problematic: it is usually more extreme elements which go public with leaked complaints. If/when leaked and unsourced complaints come out of the Pentagon about President Obama, we will not know who they came from. It might be that General Petraeus is satisfied with President Obama’s decisions, yet a more extreme element in the Pentagon is dissatisfied, and is leaking anonymously in a way which falsely implies General Petraeus’ involvement. Palace intrigue.

  14. Kathy says:


    I tried to post a reply to your most recent comment last night, but the site was not cooperating. I just wanted to say I appreciate your apology, and I agree with what you said after that.

  15. Kathy says:

    If Petraeus sees disastrous policy on it’s way to implementation; if Petraeus cannot stop such disaster through reasoning and salesmanship behind closed doors; Petraeus is then honor bound to go public about such disaster-in-the-making. Going public would politically damage President Obama. Yet, I see no other honorable choice for Petraeus in such a situation.

    What a load of crap. Petraeus is constitutionally obligated to carry out the president’s orders, as long as they are legal. Certainly, as I said before, personal honor and professional ethics require him to make policy disagreements known to the president and argue his case — in private, to the president. But once the president makes his decision, that’s it. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Disobeying or sabotaging a legal presidential order is insubordination.

    The only other appropriate and honorable option for Petraeus if he felt so strongly that Pres. Obama was following a “disastrous” policy would be to resign. There is no honor in continuing to take the paycheck while simultaneously working to undermine the policy.

  16. gcotharn says:

    I don’t disagree. I’ve not implied Petraeus should fail to carry out Presidential policy. I’ve said Petraeus should oppose policy he believes is disastrous. There’s a difference between the two things.

    Maybe where we disagree is I believe there’s nothing inherently immoral about Petraeus using his power in public (in fact, in this scenario, doing so is moral and virtuous). If resignation is appropriate, Petraeus should resign.

    I do not expect such a scenario will come to fruition. We’re still a ways away from President Obama recommending disastrous policy – and I’m optimistic it won’t happen. If a disastrous scenario does come to fruition, I’ve confidence Petraeus will take honorable action. There’s nothing in his resume to indicate otherwise.

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