As I noted in this post, the front page NYT story putting Petraeus in charge of the paramilitary groups I will call “JUnc-WTF,” which are deployed in allied countries, reminded me of Eric Massa’s allegations that Dick Cheney and Petraeus were plotting a coup (though, as Massa describes it, it sounds more like an “election challenge”).
• Earlier in the year, long before the allegations had been made public, Massa had called me with a potentially huge story: Four retired generals — three four-stars and one three-star — had informed him, he said, that General David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, had met twice in secret with former vice president Dick Cheney. In those meetings, the generals said, Cheney had attempted to recruit Petraeus to run for president as a Republican in 2012.
• The generals had told him, and Massa had agreed, that if someone didn’t act immediately to reveal this plot, American constitutional democracy itself was at risk. Massa and I had had several conversation on the topic, each more urgent than the last. He had gone to the Pentagon, he told me, demanding answers. He knew the powerful forces that he was dealing with, he told me. They’d stop at nothing to prevent the truth from coming out, he said, including destroying him. “I told the official, ‘If I have to get up at a committee hearing and go public with this, it will cause the mother of all shitstorms and your life will be hell. So I need a meeting. Now.'”
Then there’s Jonathan Alter’s report of the tensions last year between Obama and Joe Biden on one side, and Bob Gates, Mike Mullen, David Petraeus, and Stanley McChrystal on the other. Alter describes the span of this confrontation as starting on September 13, two weeks before Petraus signed the directive for JUnc-WTF, until November 11. The confrontation arose when the Generals kept publicizing their demands for a bigger, indefinite surge in Afghanistan.
Mullen dug himself in especially deep at his reconfirmation hearings for chairman of the Joint Chiefs when he made an aggressive case for a long-term commitment in Afghanistan. White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was enraged at Mullen’s public testimony and let the Pentagon know it. When Petraeus gave an interview to Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson on Sept.4 calling for a “fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign,” the chief of staff was even angrier.
From the start, the potential of a Petraeus presidential run was in the background.
Some aides worried at least briefly that Petraeus was politically ambitious and was making an implied threat: decide Afghanistan my way or I just might resign my command and run for president in 2012. It wasn’t a crazy thought. Rep. Peter King and various blogs were promoting him for high office.
Ultimately, presented with the choice of deferring to the Generals or undercutting them, Obama chose a third option: surging in Afghanistan, but sternly scolding them to make sure they would back a withdrawal in 18 months.
Obama was perfectly aware of the box he was now in. He could defer entirely to his generals, as President Bush had done, which he considered an abdication of responsibility. Or he could overrule them, which would weaken their effectiveness, with negative consequences for soldiers in the field, relations with allies, and the president’s own political position. There had to be a third way, he figured.
In the meantime it was important to remind the brass who was in charge. Inside the National Security Council, advisers considered what happened next historic, a presidential dressing-down unlike any in the United States in more than half a century. Read more