Shihab Rattansi Headshot

My Talk with Mike Mullen

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I've spent the week meeting Generals and Admirals to talk dispassionately about the spilling of more blood. What becomes clear is that, whether it's General Jack Keane, the author of the Iraq surge strategy, or the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, they genuinely believe that the judicious application of force can make the world a better place. In some cases they seem utterly unaware that the deployment of US firepower can cause exactly the sort of resentment and destabilization they say they are trying to curtail.

Full disclosure: I was a teenage pacifist. More than once I considered purchasing that poster depicting a mushroom cloud with the word "why?" printed underneath. I wore a small badge with the semaphoric symbols for nuclear disarmament on my second-hand trench-coat. Above all, the military was a sinister, evil group of killers. A uniform denoted treachery, an immediate signifier of bad intentions and murder on behalf of retrograde power brokers.

Whether or not they do stand for all of that, as an adult, and someone who makes a living from questioning those who claim to have our best interests at heart, I must say they're often terribly nice chaps. At least before you interview them.

Chairman Mullen, for example, was clearly a nice bloke with clammy palms and good intentions. I honestly don't think he would have minded if I had addressed him as 'admiral mike'. As a teenager I would have had no qualms about aiming an egg in the direction of his limousine. I realize now that such an action would not simply have been pointless if bravura teenage protest. The admiral's humanity suggests he would be keenly aware of the dismay of those around him.

I''ve been subsequently informed that as the Admiral affably indulged my questioning, his media handler (a short chap overwhelmed by his uniform) was busily but lightly punching my producer. We're not sure what his purpose was, but thankfully my producer's response was to whisper "it's OK, it's OK" to the irate aide de camp, and not give in to the pressure and start punching me. As a result I have forgiven him for his ruthless editing of the interview -- a section about bribing the Afghan government to come together concluded with the crucial question about puppet governments inspiring nationalistic or fundamentalist insurgency. Won't the result of the new US strategy simply be to create an even less stable version of Pakistan? Somehow that didn't make the final cut. Not that Admiral Mike had much of an answer -- his contention really seems to be that this will all work out in the end. What else can he say, I suppose.

If there really is a rift between the White House and the Pentagon; if Mullen and Robert Gates really did railroad the President into their preferred option, I would surmise that at least they did so nicely. I'm still uncertain as to whether Barack Obama has rolled over. I can't help but return to the last third of his speech at West Point. The President quotes Eisenhower, and then seems to issue a warning to the military industrial complex that enough may soon be enough. Imperial adventurism may soon come to an end in favor of domestic rebuilding. But all emperors say this sort of thing. We shall see.