War Stories

I Don’t Know. Go Ask Petraeus.

McCain’s appalling answer to a question about national-security policy.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

The question must be asked: When it comes to national-security affairs—the heart of his campaign, the center of his career—does Sen. John McCain know what he’s talking about?

He raised doubts a few weeks ago when he said, more than once, that Iran was training al-Qaida terrorists. The confusion (his new best friend, Joe Lieberman, had to correct him) suggested that the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee doesn’t recognize the difference between Sunni and Shiite extremists—or, worse still, that he regards all anti-American Muslims as fundamentally the same. This is not merely a “gaffe” but a severe blind spot. It reveals that he may be incapable of even considering the idea of playing our enemies off one another.

This week, McCain sent further shudders through the body politic (or perhaps he would have, had the mainstream media covered the event) by pretty much promising, if elected, to abrogate his constitutional responsibilities. At the Associated Press’ annual meeting on April 14, McCain was asked whether he would divert U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan in order to quash the resurgent Taliban and capture Osama Bin Laden. McCain responded: “I would not do that unless Gen. Petraeus said that he felt that the situation called for that.”

There are three things wrong with that answer.

First, Petraeus is not in a position, formally or otherwise, to make such an assessment. Petraeus himself was asked that very question at hearings earlier this month before the Senate armed services committee (which McCain attended, at least for a while), and the general—properly—begged off, noting that he is merely the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and that such broader issues must be decided by higher authorities.

Second, the right officer to field that question is the commander of U.S. Central Command, who has responsibility for Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and all South Asia. That commander, until recently, was Adm. William Fallon. He was canned last month after publicly calling for just such a shift of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. If McCain is keen to defer to top military officers, would he—unlike President Bush—have followed Fallon’s advice? If not, why not?

Third, and more to the point, this is a question about policy and priorities, not battlefield strategy or tactics. In other words, it’s a question that only the president can answer. He can, and should, ask his top military officers—not just Petraeus, but also the other commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—for advice on the potential risks and benefits of redeploying troops. But the decision would be his.

McCain would probably acknowledge this point, if pressed. Most likely, he doesn’t know the answer to the troop-movement question (it is a tough one), and deferring to Gen. Petraeus is the standard gambit these days for politicians who don’t want to think about the problem or take responsibility for a solution.

Five-and-a-half years ago, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush was occasionally seen carrying a copy of Eliot A. Cohen’s book Supreme Command, which argued that, throughout American history, wartime presidents have often overruled their generals, sometimes with fortunate results. Bush’s message was clear: The Army’s generals were telling then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they needed more troops for the invasion, but he and Rumsfeld were running the show.

Then, when everything went to hell, the two civilians started piling the burden on the very generals whose advice they’d dismissed. The war plan was “Tommy Franks’ plan,” Rumsfeld said over and over five years ago. Similarly, Bush now says the surge and everything about it is “Dave Petraeus’ plan.” How many troops he needs, and how long they stay there—that’s strictly up to Dave.

Petraeus is too smart not to know that he’s being used in this game. He’s also been shrewd enough to cultivate warm relations with the Hill and the press, in part to build support for his strategy, in part to ensure that, if the war turns irreparably south, he doesn’t go down with it. (By any objective measure, he has performed extraordinarily well, given the hand he’s been dealt.) Still, it’s easy to imagine him sometimes shaking his head and wondering whether any of his political masters will step up to the plate and own this war.