Duel of the Machiavellians: Obama vs. Petraeus

By Stephen J. Sniegoski

While Obama is often portrayed as a political neophyte finding himself confronting situations that are way over his head, his choice of General David H. Petraeus to replace General Stanley A. McChrystal was in some ways a masterful political stroke, though it does not seem to have achieved all that might have been intended.

Obama’s move has nothing to do with any effort to maintain a “winning” strategy in Afghanistan. No realistic person could even conceive of how the US could “win” in Afghanistan. In fact, it would not seem that the central purpose of Obama’s escalation of the US war in Afghanistan in 2009 had to do with “winning,” either, since unlike his political predecessor, Obama actually gives the appearance of knowing what is going on. Rather, Obama’s purpose is fundamentally a political one: preventing, or at least limiting, political damage from the war in Afghanistan.

Obama sees the political need to manoeuvre between the positions of the war hawks and the advocates of peace with whom he largely agrees. Political considerations largely determine how Obama acts regarding Afghanistan, and about almost everything else he does. (All successful US politicians generally act in that manner.) If he were to base his action on his personal view of the merits of the issue, it seems likely that Obama would opt for peace and pull the troops out of Afghanistan. As antiwar critic Sheldon Richman writes in his article “Endless Occupation?” (June 29, 2010): “Obama presumably would like to get out – he can’t be thrilled about presiding over America’s longest war – but the cross-currents may leave him no choice but to tread water. The military wants to ‘win,’ whatever that means, while the Right is ready to pounce on Obama as an appeaser of terrorists if he acknowledges the reality of this inglorious war. (Al-Qaeda has moved on.)” http://counterpunch.org/richman06292010.html

Obama’s right-wing critics constantly characterize his foreign policy as one of weakness, and it is this notion that Obama goes all out to dispel, fearing that, if this view caught on among the general public, it would do significant political harm to him among the moderate swing voters, upon whose support he must rely. On the other hand, peace voters will continue to support Obama even if he differs with their position at times, because the Republicans advocate a harder-line war position, and voting for a pro-peace minor party is generally considered a wasted vote.

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