I have a confession to make. A small part of me was just a little bit glad to hear about the sex scandal involving Gen. David Petraeus. Not for his family, of course, or anyone else who was hurt by his alleged irresponsible indiscretions. I was glad, at least somewhat, for my country. After all, Petraeus has been one of the greatest advocates in the U.S. government for our continued involvement in Afghanistan.
In 2009, President Barack Obama announced his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014. The few journalists and think-tank ideologues who wished to stay in Afghanistan longer wanted a national figure who might redirect this withdrawal narrative. Until two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was one of those figures. But for much longer, David Petraeus has been that figure. In fact, he has continually insisted that the U.S. maintain a presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that the majority of Americans want U.S. troops to leave.
It has become common rhetoric in both major political parties to “defer to the generals” on foreign policy. Many believe that when it comes to these matters, military experts know more than the president. But we are not a banana republic. In the United States, the president is the commander-in-chief and the generals follow his command. This does not mean generals and other experts are not consulted. But what it does mean is that they are not the ultimate arbiters of war. According to the Constitution, Congress declares war, presidents oversee it, and generals wage it. Our founders preferred civilian rule to military rule; after all, they knew full well the dangers of the latter.
That generals should have a primary or even final decision in our foreign policy runs counter to the core principles of our constitutional republic. So does the concept of perpetual war itself. Or as James Madison once wrote: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other … No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Those who believe that the United States’ role in the world is that of global policeman or provider run counter not only to a general public desire for a less aggressive foreign policy but also against core conservative principles about individual liberty and smaller government. The national security state that has arisen since 9/11 has made a mockery of the Bill of Rights. Applying a cost-benefit analysis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveals staggering costs but little benefit. Americans still believe in a strong national defense, but few believe our current foreign policy has left our nation or military stronger.
Petraeus was not the first military official to conclude that we should stay in Afghanistan. By most measures, his recommendations for staying in Afghanistan have been that of a strategy expert who recognizes the potential mess that could be left behind in our absence. But when will American withdrawal not be messy for Afghanistan? Will this not be true in another 10 years? And recognizing this, does it even make sense to stay through 2014?
Most rational arguments point toward leaving Afghanistan sooner rather than later, but a long-standing rallying cry for those who wish to remain has always been to canonize Gen. Petraeus. The general has been portrayed in the media, in particular in right-wing publications like The Weekly Standard, as a man whose military wisdom, moral character, and heroic stature were beyond question or compare. The president of the United States might say we should go, but the irreproachable David Petraeus says we should never leave. This was never really an argument. It was idol-worship disguised as argument. But it worked. Often. Especially with conservatives.
Today, however, no one sees Gen. David Petraeus as irreproachable. For his family, I feel pity. But for my country and its foreign policy, I feel hope.