General Petraeus

By Andrew J. Bacevich
The American Conservative, October 8, 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

David Petraeus is a political general. In presenting his recent assessment of the Iraq War, he demonstrated that he is a political general of the worst kind.

From the beginning of the Iraq War, the failure to plan for an occupation, the wildly inflated expectations of Iraq's rapid transformation into a liberal democracy, the refusal to acknowledge the insurgency until long after it had begun, the deeply flawed campaign that ensued: all of these meant that the exertions of U.S. troops tended to be at odds with our stated political intentions.

The Petraeus-Crocker hearings found Petraeus in a position to resolve that problem. Over the previous months, President Bush had effectively abdicated responsibility for managing the war.

The general has now made his call, and President Bush has endorsed it: the surge having succeeded, it will now be curtailed. The war will continue, albeit on a marginally smaller scale. Petraeus has chosen a middle course. This is the politics of give and take. Ultimately, it is the politics of avoidance.

In testifying before House and Senate committees about the current situation in Iraq, Petraeus told no outright lies. He made no blustery promises about victory. The tone of the presentation was sober and measured. Yet the essence of his message was this: after four years of futile blundering, the United States has identified the makings of a successful strategy in Iraq.

What then should he have recommended to the Congress and the president? That is, if the commitment of a modest increment of additional forces has begun to turn things around, then what should the senior field commander be asking for next?

More time. More money. And above all, more troops. It is one of the oldest principles of generalship: when you find an opportunity, exploit it. Where you gain success, reinforce it. When you have your opponent at a disadvantage, pile on.

Yet Petraeus has chosen to do just the opposite. This defies logic. Petraeus is a serious student of counterinsurgencies. He knows that they require lots of troops. He knows that they require lots of time. The counter-insurgency manual that Petraeus helped draft prior to taking up command in Baghdad makes these points explicitly.

There is only one plausible explanation for Petraeus' terminating a surge that he says has enabled coalition forces to gain the upper hand. That explanation is politics. Above all, a modest drawdown pleases President Bush. It gives him breathing room to continue the conflict in which he has so much invested.

After 9/11, to sustained bipartisan applause, President Bush committed the United States to an open-ended global war on terror. Having made that fundamental decision, the president and Congress sent American soldiers off to fight that war.

The result, six years later, is a massive and growing gap between the resources required to sustain that global war and the resources actually available to do so. The president has made no serious effort to mobilize the wherewithal that his wars in Iraq and Afghanistan require.

Petraeus has now given this charade a further lease on life. In effect, he is allowing the president and the Congress to continue dodging the main issue. If the civilian leadership wants to wage a global war on terror and if that war entails pacifying Iraq, then let's get serious about it.

Once we recognize the global war on terror for the fraudulent enterprise that it has become, then we can get serious about designing a strategy to address the real threat, which is violent Islamic radicalism.

A great political general doesn't tell his masters what they want to hear. He tells them what they need to hear. Petraeus has failed his country.

AR  (2007) This argument has some plausibility. Petraeus has missed a chance to make history. A slow exit from Iraq will only leave the Iraqis to endure more pain. The only explanation is that the stated reason for the invasion is eyewash. The present strategy suggests that the real reason is oil.

(2011) Petraeus has lost Iraq and now he is losing Afghanistan. What next?