In an argument (usually a political debate), a concern troll is someone who is on one side of the discussion, but pretends to be a supporter of the other side with "concerns". The idea behind this is that your opponents will take your arguments more seriously if they think you're an ally.
When asked about the July 2011 deadline to begin troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, General Petraeus says "I support the policy of the president." This past week, though, in testimony before Congress in hastily arranged hearings, he made his position more clear. He supports the policy of the president," but thinks "we have to be very careful with time-lines," and he might even try to convince the president to renege on his promise to the American people as July 2011 comes closer.
He's a concern troll. He's kowtowing to the principle of civilian control of the military, but his function in the debate is to constantly hem and haw, sapping support for strong action in favor of a position with which he does not (and maybe never did) agree.
Now, Petraeus is a cool customer and an experienced hand at testifying before Congress. When faced with an adversarial questioner, he rarely shows his cards and tends to filibuster them out of time, sticking closely to the "I support the president" talking point. That's what makes his performance this week slightly shocking. The masked slipped.
When asked by Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) whether his support for the July 2011 reflected his best, personal, professional judgment, he responded with a very interesting stare at the senator, an "um," and a five-second-or-so pause before saying, "We have to be very careful with time-lines." Asked whether that was a qualified yes, or qualified no, or a non-answer, he said, "qualified yes."
In other words, "yes, but..."
Wednesday's House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing shed even more light on what exactly those qualifications are, and the troll tusks were showing. Responding to a question from HASC Ranking Member Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), Petraeus said that yes, he supports the July 2011 date as the beginning of a process. But, he complained, that date was based on a projection from last Fall. He said we'll do everything humanly possible (well, everything humanly possible within the constraints of a brutal, costly strategic frame that's not working) to achieve those conditions. When asked by McKeon whether July 2011 was based on conditions and not just a date on the calendar, he said, "That's correct." And, when asked whether he'd recommend delaying the withdrawal if those conditions didn't materialize, he confirmed it.
America, get ready for this excuse:
"Well, we tried, but it's just not possible for us to keep President Obama's promise to start a withdrawal this month." --General David Petraeus, July 2011.
Compare that General Petraeus, who only gives the July 2011 date his qualified support and who wants us all to know he might change his mind when crunch time arrives, with this General Petraeus, described by Jonathan Alter:
Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, "David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?"
"Sir, I'm confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame," Petraeus replied.
"Good. No problem," the president said. "If you can't do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?"
"Yes, sir, in agreement," Petraeus said.
"Yes, sir," Mullen said.
The president was crisp but informal. "Bob, you have any problems?" he asked Gates, who said he was fine with it.
The president then encapsulated the new policy: in quickly, out quickly, focus on Al Qaeda, and build the Afghan Army. "I'm not asking you to change what you believe, but if you don't agree with me that we can execute this, say so now," he said. No one said anything.
"Tell me now," Obama repeated.
"Fully support, sir," Mullen said.
"Ditto," Petraeus said.
Expect the Alter quotation above to become cliche in a hurry. Petraeus revealed this week that he has no intention of standing by his word to the president. This week, he said explicitly that if we can't do the things he says in 18 months, he will, in fact, suggest we stay.
Petraeus says he supports the president's policy. His comments this week, though, serve only to validate the critics of the withdrawal portion of the president's policy. He's not a supporter of this policy. He's a concern troll.
Don't let him get away with moving the goalposts. Join Rethink Afghanistan on Facebook as we work to end this brutal war that's not worth the costs.
Follow Derrick Crowe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/derrickcrowe