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The Petraeus Saga

Neoconservatives have lost their best advocate for war in Afghanistan.

If there is a positive to come out of the unfolding scandal involving General Petraeus, it might be a more sober accounting of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Risks to our national security have been heightened by our continued presence there: Our handpicked president, Hamid Karzai is seen as a joke. Anti-American sentiment has grown considerably. Terrorists recruit. The Taliban endures.

To the degree Americans have even thought about the war, polls in recent years have shown overwhelmingly that the country has been ready to come home. To the degree that a small but influential minority thinks we should stay in Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus was perhaps their greatest advocate within government.

In 2009, President Obama announced his plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014. The few journalists and think-tank ideologues who wished to stay in Afghanistan longer wanted a national figure who might redirect this withdrawal narrative. Until two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was one of those figures.

But for much longer, David Petraeus has been that figure.

Consider this timeline of headlines from the nation’s most pre-eminent neoconservative journal, The Weekly Standard—from the beginning of Petraeus’ role as head of Afghanistan Central Command in June 2010 until months after he stepped down in July 2011: “William Kristol: Obama’s Choice: He did the right thing, picking Petraeus and committing to success.” (July 5, 2010); “Gen. Petraeus Wants More Time in Afghanistan” (August 13, 2010); “The Case for Giving Gen. Petraeus a Fifth Star” (January 13, 2011); “Whither Petraeus?: General David Petraeus should next be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” (April 27, 2011); “Kristol: ‘Troop Deployment Schedule Is Being Determined by David Axelrod, Not by David Petraeus” (June 23, 2011); “Petraeus: Afghanistan Withdrawal ‘More Aggressive’ Than Advised” (June 23, 2011); “Petraeus: ‘Maintain the Full-Spectrum Capability’ of the Military” (September 1, 2011); “Report: Petraeus Considered Resigning Over Afghan Drawdown” (Dec. 29, 2011).

These headlines reflect (and they are not cherry-picked) the Weekly Standard’s investment in Petraeus and his consistent advice that America remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. This view was echoed on talk radio and Fox News—that President Obama was somehow “weak” for wanting to withdraw from Afghanistan too quickly, and that Petraeus was the man whose advice we should ultimately follow.

It has become common rhetoric in both major political parties to “defer to the generals” on foreign policy—the notion that military experts know more than the President. But we are not a banana republic: In the United States, the President is the Commander-in-Chief and the generals follow his command. This does not mean generals and other experts are not consulted. It does not mean that they are the ultimate arbiters of war. The Constitution outlines that Congress declares war, presidents devise it, and generals wage it. Our Founders preferred civilian rule to military, knowing full the dangers of the latter.

That generals should have a primary or even final decision in our foreign policy runs counter to the core principles of our constitutional republic. So does the concept of perpetual war itself. Wrote James Madison: “Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other… No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Those who construe the American role in the world as that of global policeman or provider, run counter not only to a general public desire for a less aggressive foreign policy but also against core conservative beliefs in individual liberty and smaller government. The national security state that expanded after 9/11 has made mockery of our Bill of Rights. Applying cost/benefit analyses to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reveals staggering costs but little benefit. Americans still believe in a strong national defense. But few believe our current foreign policy has made our nation or military stronger.

Petraeus was not the first military official to conclude we should stay. By most measures, his recommendations for staying in Afghanistan have been that of a strategy expert who recognizes the potential mess that could be left behind in our absence.

But when will American withdrawal not be messy for Afghanistan? Will this not be true in another ten years? And recognizing this, does it even make sense to stay through 2014?

Most rational arguments point toward leaving Afghanistan sooner rather than later, but a longstanding rallying cry for those who wished to remain was to invoke the reputation of Petraeus. He was portrayed as a man whose military wisdom, moral character, and heroic stature were beyond question or compare. The President of the United States might say we should go—but the irreproachable Gen. David Petraeus disagrees.

This was never really an argument. It was idol-worship disguised as an argument. But it worked. Often. Especially with conservatives.

Now, no one sees David Petraeus as irreproachable.

Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul.