Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Much Ado About MoveOn's General ‘Betray-Us’ Ad?

Anger, deceit, revenge and betrayal. MoveOn’s “General Betray-Us” ad and the subsequent political fallout have all of the drama for a contemporary Shakespearean play. The big question now is whether or not the play will be a comedy or a tragedy. The opening act, filled with turmoil and uncertainty, has all the trappings for both thus far. It’s the fifth and final act of the play, however, that will determine the play’s categorical fate. If all the chaos from the play’s opening act subsides and everyone gets along, we have a comedy. If the stage is amassed with political casualties, including all the major players, then we have a tragedy.

The opening scene of the play begins with a full-page ad printed in the New York Times, which reads in bold letters, “General Petraeus or General Betray-Us?” The ad was paid for by MoveOn, a political action organization that calls Gen. Petraeus’ credibility into question by implying that the messenger has betrayed the American people by misrepresenting the facts. By choosing to use the word, “betray,” in attacking the credibility of the messenger, a respected and decorated general, MoveOn has used a doubled-edged sword to draw first blood.

In doing so, did MoveOn cross the line?

By late May 2007, Congress had yet to successfully legislate any timetables for troop withdrawal, so they shifted their strategy by enacting legislation that mandated Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker deliver a progress report to Congress by Sept. 15 detailing whether or not progress had been made on 18 benchmarks set by Congress.

Ironically, Congress’ first success in imposing a deadline played right into Bush’s hands, providing him with the perfect gambit: Gen. Petraeus. As frustrations about the war in Iraq and the troop surge mounted at home, the death toll for American soldiers spiked in the theater of war in Iraq. Instead of taking responsibility for this, Bush shirked his responsibility for what happens on the ground in Iraq and placed the burden on to Petraeus’ shoulders. Bush’s credibility, having been shot to pieces, was reborn with the anointment of a respected general.

Meanwhile, the commander in chief had not only bought some time but had the perfect shield to deflect opposition fired at him from all fronts, including his own party members, who were feeling the escalating heat from their constituents. Moreover, congressional Republicans, including those who stood behind Bush’s policies in Iraq and those who were getting a little antsy, had the Petraeus Shield at their disposal, when they returned home during August recess to face their constituents.

Some people dogged their representatives at public speaking engagements, yet most Americans stood by and waited and waited and waited until September. But for what? Did anyone seriously think that Petraeus was going to present anything but an optimistic report indicating progress in Iraq?

While campaigning for presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Il., in Iowa in July, retired Air Force Gen. Scott Gration was asked what he thought about Petraeus’ new role. “I tell you one thing, I don’t envy General Petraeus at all,” said Gration. “He’s in a lose-lose situation.” Gration was referencing the notion that if Petraeus reports that progress is being made, he’ll be accosted by the growing anti-war sentiment in America, and if he paints a bleak picture, he’ll have to face the fallout from his boss, the commander in chief.

In addition, Petraeus has the added pressure of carrying the responsibility for the safety and welfare of all the troops in Iraq. The troops in Iraq are dependent upon Petraeus’ leadership and guidance, and a less-than-optimistic report would only serve to undermine their morale, which has already been stretched thin because of multiple and extended deployments.

“General Petraeus is in my opinion the best commander that we have had thus far in Iraq,” Iraq War Veteran war veteran James D. Mowrer told the Iowa Independent. Mowrer, who recently returned from Iraq with the Iowa National Guard 133rd Infantry Battalion and now serves as the state coordinator of Iowa Veterans for Joe Biden, had nothing but praise for Petraeus. “He took over a lot of problems that were not of his own making and is carrying out a strategy that he may or may not agree with.”

Enter, stage left: MoveOn, whose frustration with the Petraeus report helped fuel its full-page ad in the New York Times Sept 10. Ironically, MoveOn’s attack strategy backfired as it has gone from taking the offensive to back pedaling into a defensive mode -- under the guise the organization has sparked a discussion at the nation level. On its website, MoveOn Executive Director Eli Pariser writes a post, “the thinking behind the ad,” which attempts to rationalize the group's decisions but invariably falls into defending its decisions.

MoveOn’s attempt to forge a discussion at the national level regarding Petraeus’ findings has been lost as the focus has shifted to the ad itself, driving the wedge between both sides even deeper. Pariser defends MoveOn’s usage of “betray,” in the ad. “As long as General Petraeus is ‘untouchable,’ the president can continue to hide behind him,” Pariser writes. “That’s why the public needs to know that Petraeus is neither objective nor trustworthy when it comes to assessing progress in Iraq.”

“A debate on our involvement in Iraq should focus on the policy and the commander and chief that sets that policy, not the soldiers that take orders regardless of their personal feelings,” countered Mowrer, who specialized in gathering intelligence while serving in Iraq.

Of course, Petraeus is not objective, namely because he’s not a civilian, and he works directly under Bush’s command. In the military, soldiers are trained to abide by the chain of command and not to overstep it. By presenting a report contradictory to the next link up in his chain of command and overstepping his commander in chief, Petraeus would have to betray the sacred oath he took upon swearing in to the military, meaning he would have to betray not only his country but himself.

Besides, Americans love their generals. There’s nothing to gain by attacking an active-duty general, let alone a retired general. When Gen. Colin Powell served as secretary of state under Bush and was assigned the task of selling the idea of invading Iraq to the international community, Powell ended up parlaying misinformation. But because of Powell’s distinguished military career, nobody dared to challenge Powell’s credibility by attacking his character.

Not only has MoveOn hunkered down into defensive mode, but the Democrats have been put into a defensive mode as the Republican attack machine revs up. Republicans have called upon Democrats, especially presidential candidates, to denounce the ad. The Senate approved a resolution Thursday denouncing the ad by a vote of 72-25. Given the fact that Democrats represent the Senate majority, it’s surprising this resolution was even considered for debate, thus illustrating that the Democrats stick to what they’re used to playing: defense.

Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joe Biden of Delaware gave the resolution the attention it deserved by skipping the vote. Both senators canceled campaign events to return to D.C. to vote on significant measures regarding Iraq War policy but chose to skip the MoveOn ad vote and return to the campaign trail. Obama called the resolution a “stunt” and said, “By not casting a vote, I registered my protest against these empty politics.”

The day after the resolution passed, MoveOn boasted in an e-mail that “over 12,000 people had donated $500,000 – more than they’ve raised any day this year – for a new ad calling out the Republicans who blocked adequate rest for troops headed back to Iraq.” Again, there new ad is reactionary, the latter addressing the Webb/Hagel amendment that failed to pass in the Senate last week. Attacking Republicans after the fact is not going to change last week’s vote, much like the “Betray-Us” ad is not going to change what Petraeus reported.

Another possible consequence of the MoveOn ad, other than giving all of the Republican presidential candidates fodder to fire up the party's base, is that it risks alienating the military and veterans’ bloc of voters, who are considering voting for a Democratic candidate in next year’s election. “This incident has damaged the Democratic party’s 50-state strategy and has hurt our credibility with veterans and service members,” said Mowrer. “We can and will recover in time.”

Until then we’ll have to wait and wait until the fifth act plays out next November and the political dust settles. Only then we will know whether or we witnessed a Shakespearean comedy or tragedy. If the latter should prevail, the one certainty in a Shakespearean tragedy
is that the messenger, which in this play is Gen. Petraeus, always survives -- unscathed.

Originally posted on "Iowa Independent"

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