Rise of the four-star deities

David Petraeus, George Bush’s “main man” in Iraq and an American military icon, is now expected to w

On 23 June, the president of the United States, Barack Obama, sacked his top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal. The general and his aides were quoted making disparaging remarks about their commander-in-chief, and other senior colleagues, in a now famous article in Rolling Stone magazine.

In announcing the dismissal of McChrystal, the president said he had made his decision not on the basis of "any difference in policy" nor out of "any sense of personal insult", but because the article had eroded trust and undermined "the civilian control of the military that's at the core of our democratic system".

Could this be the end of the love affair between the US political and military classes? In an age in which the citizenry is disillusioned with politicians and repulsed by the bankers, America's top generals, notably McChrystal and his celebrated mentor David Petraeus, have become the subjects of awe and reverence, not to mention the repositories of wide-ranging policymaking powers.

Douglas Macgregor, a retired colonel, decorated Gulf war veteran and adviser to the ­Pentagon until 2004, says he is disturbed by the "modern deification" of generals. "Most Americans have no military experience," he tells me. "They tend to impute to anyone wearing stars a degree of competence and courage associated with battle-hardened leaders of the Second World War or the Korean conflict. Nothing could be further from the truth."

According to this view, the Rolling Stone debacle is an example not just of a single general exercising bad judgement, but a microcosm of how the top brass as a whole - arrogant, hubristic, overmighty - have overreached themselves. It illustrates the urgent need to recalibrate the relationship between democratic politicians and military commanders.

“Certainly, if President Obama had not fired McChrystal, our civil-military relations problems would have become significantly worse," says one former Pentagon official who served under George W Bush. "But what few people recall is that when the Bush administration first came in, they were determined to rectify what they saw as very serious problems with civilian control, and determined to redress the imbalance. Ironically, because of how the Iraq war turned out, Bush left office with civil-military relations arguably in a far worse state than when he came in. General Petraeus had become the face not only of the military campaign, but of the strategy and policy of the war in Iraq."

During his eight years in office, Bush relied on different generals to prop up his adminis­tration's foreign and defence policies, in particular on Iraq: from the plain-speaking Tommy Franks and the Arabic-speaking John Abizaid, who oversaw the lead-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq between 2002 and 2003, to the soldier-scholar Petraeus and the shaven-headed Ray Odierno, who executed the so-called surge in US military forces which, its supporters claim, helped reduce the violence in that country between 2007 and 2008.

Petraeus stands out above the rest. A West Point graduate with a PhD in international relations from Princeton, he co-authored the US army's much-lauded manual on counter-insurgency, or "Coin", in 2006. Coin theory disinters the Vietnam-era language of "clear, hold and build", and describes soldiers and marines as "nation-builders as well as warriors". It ­empha­sises a "population-centric" over an enemy-centred approach, and demands large numbers of troops. The Iraq surge was built on the ideas contained in ­Petraeus's Coin manual and the general himself implemented these ideas as Bush's commander on the ground.

The then president constantly invoked Petraeus's name as he defended his new strategy in Iraq. Bush, noted the Washington Post in July 2007, called Petraeus his "main man" and managed to stave off a revolt over Iraq by Congressional Republicans by telling them "to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgement."

Bush's main man is now also Obama's main man. The current president pre-empted Republican criticisms of his decision to fire McChrystal by instantly appointing Petraeus in his place as the new US commander in Afghanistan. Given the success in Iraq that he and his surge have been credited with, Petraeus is the particular favourite of pro-war pundits at the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News and at the right-wing Weekly Standard magazine. He is equally popular with hawkish neoconservatives such as the former vice-president Dick Cheney and the independent senator Joe Lieberman. Other generals are also popular in these quarters, such as Odierno, the current commander in Iraq, seen to have been successful in fighting terrorists, insurgents and dictators in America's so-called war on terror.

“The senior ranks are politicised in ways never seen in the history of the United States," says Colonel Macgregor. "The top bureaucrats in uniform - that is, the top generals and admirals - are tied to neoconservative political circles in Washington, DC in ways that did not exist before 2001."

But is it too easy to blame it all on Bush and his neocon allies? "American grand strategy has been a shambles for a long time - arguably from the end of the cold war," says the former Pentagon official. "The vacuum of strategic thinking gets filled by operational thinking, which only the military is providing. If we had real strategic thinking and real strategic action, then civilian leaders could more credibly direct the military to do its bidding. But without an overall sense of what the US priorities and objectives are, we are collectively reduced to chasing tactical issues, and the military has the loudest voice in that domain."

Andrew Bacevich, the long-serving former military officer and professor of international relations at Boston University, agrees. "As Americans became infatuated with military power in the wake of the cold war, they also became infatuated with generals," he says. "General Colin Powell [the former secretary of state] was the first major beneficiary. General David Petraeus is the most recent."

Powell was the archetypal soldier-politician. Such was his national popularity as a former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff in the mid-1990s that most observers believe he could have defeated Bill Clinton for the presidency in 1996 had he stood as the ­Republican candidate. In the end, he didn't take the plunge - but Petraeus might. A registered Republican, he is thought to be considering a run for the White House in 2012. If so, Obama's decision to send him to Afghanistan could be a tactical move to remove him from the political equation, as the general's tour will last at least a year or longer. But 2016 could be an even more attractive proposition for Petraeus, who is 57, and his Republican backers - assuming he has "won" the war in Afghanistan by then.

“He is extremely intelligent and very charming. But he's also extremely driven and his charm and intellect cloak a competitive streak," says a US diplomat who knows the general. Petraeus, goes the conventional wisdom, is the scholar-soldier: intellectually robust, media-savvy and politically astute. He can be trusted to carry out the president's orders and end the war while not cros­sing the line. Such a view, however, ignores the general's recent testimony to the Senate, in which he downplayed the significance of Obama's Afghan policy review, scheduled for December, declaring that he "would not make too much of it", and claimed the July 2011 deadline set by the president for withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan is a date "when a process begins, not the date when the US heads for the exits".

The relationship between a commander-in-chief and his top military officer can be horribly complex. "Everyone pays lip-service to the principle of civilian control, but the truth of the matter is that the principle is highly contested," says Bacevich, author of The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced By War. "It would be a great mistake to assume that civil-military relations were simply a matter of generals advising, civilians deciding, and soldiers loyally and obediently implementing." Bacevich argues that the US has become addicted to the idea of global military supremacy sustained by "the collective mindset of the officer corps", as well as to the glorification of the military and the "normalisation of war".

However, he questions how much authority individual generals possess and how that translates into political power, and notes the failure of any party or faction to rally around McChrystal or to exploit his firing for political gain. "A 'cult of the generals' does exist, but that does not translate into influence for any officer who happens to have reached flag rank," Bacevich tells me. "[The retired US general and former Nato commander] Wesley Clark's effort to ­parlay his military reputation into a political ­career flopped." Yet that Clark felt he could run for president without any political experience, and purely on the strength of the four stars on his shoulder, speaks volumes.

Twelve of the 43 men who have served as US president have been former generals - including the very first occupant of the Oval Office, George Washington. Nonetheless, there has not been a general in the White House since Dwight D Eisenhower, the former Supreme Allied Commander in the Second World War and architect of the D-Day landings, left office in 1961 (ex­coriating the "military-industrial complex" on his way out). But the rise of the generals in recent years, exemplified by the hallowed status of Petraeus, has altered the dynamic. If a general is elected to the White House in 2012 or 2016, the grip of this cult on the US polity will once again have been demonstrated.

So, how to explain it? "America is a country with a long and storied history of 'great men' and exceptional individuals, such as Ulysses S Grant in the civil war, a genuine hero who saved the country," says Celeste Ward, a senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation. "We are primed for this kind of narrative." The media are adept at "spinning the yarn of a great man riding in on horseback to save the nation from disaster [which can] create unrealistic portraits and outsize expectations".

Journalists have often attributed super powers to the US military leadership, despite its failure to question the legitimacy and rationale of the 2003 Iraq invasion, and its inability to contain the rise of first the Iraqi and now the Afghan insurgencies. While the top brass are deified and deferred to at home, the military they command is humiliated abroad.

Macgregor says two types of journalists are complicit in sustaining the cult of the generals - first, those who support the war on terror, and backed the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. This group has used the popularity and seemingly apolitical status of modern generals to "cultivate support inside the American electorate for policies Americans would not normally support". Add to these, he says, "still more journalists who are anxious to enrich themselves by writing ridiculous puff pieces and books about the four stars - men who, for the most part, have no personal experience of direct-fire combat and whose decisions are limited to when and where to approve air strikes against people with no armies, no air defences and no air forces".

The largely uncritical reporting of senior military figures, acknowledges a former adviser to US military commanders in Iraq, is also a "cynical move to ensure continued access to war zones that are ultimately controlled by generals. It generally pays enormous dividends for reporters to have good access to senior officers and, thus, good relations are critical."

These "good relations" produce positive coverage. McChrystal, for example, has been described as a "Jedi" commander (in the words of Newsweek) and an "intellectual and athletic bad-ass" (Vanity Fair). Reporters tended to avoid focusing on his role in the cover-up of the death from "friendly fire" of the army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman in Afghanistan in 2004, or his links to the abuse and torture of detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq in 2006.

As the former adviser to US military commanders in Iraq points out: "Prior to the Rolling Stone article, profiles of McChrystal tended towards the hagiographic, portraying him as 'brilliant' and virtually superhuman in his personal qualities. But profiles of Karl Eikenberry [the US ambassador in Afghanistan] paled by comparison. Yet Eikenberry has a PhD from Stanford and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. If anyone in Afghanistan is brilliant, it's him. But since he was not the military commander, he was not as interesting, and he's not as good a story." (It is worth noting, incidentally, that even the Rolling Stone profile which cost him his job described McChrystal as "brilliant" and referred breathlessly to his "custom-made set of nunchucks".)

The Congressional and media hawks in the United States have acquiesced in the rise and political empowerment of a new cadre of generals and commanders committed to pushing policies - such as so-called small wars, based on counter-insurgency principles - that the US public has usually been sceptical of. It is worth reflecting on a 2006 conversation, revealed by the journalist Bob Woodward in his book The War Within, between the retired general Jack Keane, a former army vice-chief of staff and one of the architects of Petraeus's surge in Iraq, and Robert Gates, then defence secretary to President Bush (and who is now serving in the same post under President Obama):

"Let's be frank about what's happening here," Keane told Gates. "We are going to have a new administration. Do we want these policies continued or not? Do we want the best guys in there who were involved in these policies, who were advocates for them? Let's assume we have a Democratic administration and they want to pull this thing out quickly, and now they have to deal with General Petraeus and General Odierno. There will be a price to be paid to override them."

But overriding the generals is exactly what Barack Obama should set out to do, regardless of the price he has to pay. Modern America can no longer afford to defer to the top brass on issues of war and peace.