Authors: Andrew J. Bacevich
Tags: #General, #Military, #World, #Middle Eastern, #United States, #Middle East, #History, #Political Science
The case of Colonel Michael Steele, commanding a brigade of the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in 2005–2006, offers an instructive example. That Steele, a veteran of Mogadishu, was an able and courageous officer is beyond doubt. Yet as one American general put it, he and Casey had a “fundamental difference of opinion about how to prosecute the war in Iraq.” A Pattonesque pep talk to his troops summarized Steele’s philosophy: “The guy who is going to win on the far end is the one who gets violent the fastest.” COIN, with its touchy-feely emphasis, was for wimps. In Steele’s outfit—the same Rakkasans who had fought in Operation Anaconda three years earlier—body count became the measure of success, with all military-age males ripe for targeting unless they “stood still with their hands raised,” thereby bidding for recognition as noncombatants. Steele made his expectations crystal clear.
In the long history of war crimes, the events that ensued qualify as mere garden-variety atrocities. A handful of Steele’s soldiers executed several Iraqi detainees in cold blood. Members of the chain of command orchestrated a clumsy attempt at a cover-up, which inevitably fell apart.
Those directly implicated in the killings were tried, convicted, imprisoned, and forgotten. Although reprimanded for having “created a command climate where irresponsible behavior appears to have been allowed to go unchecked,” Steele himself was never charged.
He served out his tour of duty and took his troops home.
But the episode is a revealing one. From his headquarters in Baghdad, General Casey was issuing directives that said, in effect: “Here’s how we will conduct ourselves.” In the 3rd Brigade of the 101st, Colonel Steele was deciding otherwise: “Here we do things differently.” Responsibility for the climate of command prevailing in the 3rd Brigade began with Steele but did not end there. Clausewitz wrote that the main object in any war is to impose your will on the enemy. But doing so presumes an ability first to impose your will on your own subordinates. Casey’s inability to fulfill this preliminary requirement offers one measure of his shortcomings as a war leader.
In any event, on February 10, 2007, the Third Gulf War got its fourth commander, when David Petraeus succeeded Casey in Baghdad. In many respects, Petraeus was an inspired choice for the post. For the war’s supporters, no more urgent requirement existed than to reconstitute flagging public support for the ongoing conflict. Sold on false or misleading pretenses, Operation Iraqi Freedom needed to be resold.
President Bush found himself in a predicament similar to that facing Lyndon Johnson back in 1967. With his own credibility shot, LBJ had turned to General William Westmoreland to make the case for staying the course in Vietnam. Forty years later, another president with credibility problems looked to another general to bail him out. The trick was to rebrand Bush’s war, widely viewed as futile, as Petraeus’s war, with progress visible just around the corner. As luck would have it, not least among his many talents, the new commander was a gifted salesman.
In the years following his graduation from West Point in 1974, Petraeus had punched all the tickets necessary for advancement. If his career path differed from that of other upwardly mobile officers, he set himself apart by managing to punch one particular ticket several times. While some young officers spend a year or so serving as a general’s aide-de-camp and a mere handful as aide to a four-star, Petraeus achieved the remarkable distinction of serving as aide-de-camp to three different four-star generals while marrying the daughter of a fourth.
The achievement was emblematic. As army Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger, a peer but not a fan, put it, Petraeus was a charter member of the “AAA Club,” consisting of “Aides, Adjutants, and Assholes” who collectively constituted a “careerist self-promotion society that hung out near military throne rooms.”
Indeed, Petraeus displayed a knack for ingratiating himself with anyone who might someday be of use, not only senior officers but also politicians, academics, and especially journalists.
Whereas in the wake of Vietnam most serving officers viewed reporters with a mix of wariness and hostility, Petraeus saw them as potential assets to cultivate. He expended considerable energy doing just that, beguiling reporters by pretending to take them seriously.
During the first phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Major General Petraeus had commanded the 101st Airborne Division. The embedded reporter who spent “all day, every day at his elbow” was Rick Atkinson, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist-historian with
The Washington Post—
a bit like an image-savvy World War II general having Ernie Pyle or A. J. Liebling in the back of his jeep as a personal amanuensis. Atkinson came away captivated by Petraeus’s “subtle mind” and duly conveyed the general’s “cerebral musings” to the
’s influential readership. “Tell me how this ends,” Petraeus ruminated to Atkinson in the war’s first days. At once sardonic and intimate—and no more spontaneous than Pershing’s “Lafayette, we are here” or MacArthur’s “I shall return”—the exquisitely calibrated line was designed to seduce. It did just that.
After the fall of Saddam, with the occupation off to a muddled start, Petraeus won plaudits for his energetic efforts to revive the northern city of Mosul. “101st Airborne Scores Success in Reconstruction of Northern Iraq,”
The New York Times
reported, describing Petraeus as “steeped in nation building” and “prepared to act while the civilian authority in Baghdad was still getting organized.”
The achievement proved transitory, however. Petraeus’s Mosul was a Potemkin village. Once he departed, the city fell into disarray.
In June 2004, now a lieutenant general, Petraeus returned to Iraq for a second tour, charged by Casey with the task of training Iraqi security forces.
greeted word of his assignment with a fawning cover story that posed the question, “Can This Man Save Iraq?”
The implicit answer: yes. Yet when Petraeus departed fifteen months later, the country had not been saved, and the building of an Iraqi army remained a work in progress.
neglected to publish a retraction.
Petraeus’s next posting took him to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the U.S. Army thinks about how to fight. Installed as Leavenworth’s commanding general, he took personal charge of drafting a new counterinsurgency manual intended to impart greater rigor to what Casey was already purportedly doing in Iraq. The final product, known as FM 3-24, appeared in December 2006 precisely as the Bush administration was grappling with the need for a course change. If nothing else, FM 3-24 was an astonishing public relations triumph, with Petraeus himself the principal beneficiary.
The manual announced that salvation was at hand.
We recount these episodes not to question Petraeus’s genuinely prodigious talents but to emphasize the one specific quality that set him apart from soldiers like Tommy Franks or Ricardo Sanchez or George Casey. Petraeus was smart, shrewd, and not lacking in physical courage. So were other senior military officers of his day. But unlike others, Petraeus had also acquired a mastery of what Daniel Boorstin decades before had called the “pseudo-event.”
He had a gift for manipulating appearances so that perception displaces reality. And that, more than anything else, is what the Bush administration required in the winter of 2006–2007: someone who could reimagine the war in Iraq, thereby concealing the irreversible collapse of U.S. strategy in the Greater Middle East.
In his Princeton PhD dissertation, a younger Petraeus had written, “What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters more than what actually occurred.”
Although not an original thought, it accurately describes the task confronting Petraeus as he took the reins in Baghdad. His first priority was to persuade political elites, the American public, and to some extent the U.S. military itself to disbelieve in what had actually taken place in Iraq, ignoring the gap between what had been promised and what had occurred—substituting instead the image of a war that still might somehow be redeemed. To succeed was to divert attention from the fact that the war itself had become devoid of strategic purpose.
Ever so briefly, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration had devised a strategy of sorts, arguably the first ever since the United States had inaugurated its War for the Greater Middle East. A transformed U.S. military, guided by the precepts of the RMA, was going to transform the core of the Islamic world. Now, a half-dozen years later, the appointment of General Petraeus represented a tacit abandonment of that strategy and an abrogation of the RMA. Although the War for the Greater Middle East continued, U.S. military policy in the Islamic world from this point forward possessed no more coherence than when Ronald Reagan had supported one side in the Iran-Iraq War while providing arms to the other. President Bush was counting on General Petraeus to prevent anyone from noticing.
Petraeus delivered. Temporarily provided with a modest contingent of thirty thousand additional combat troops, armed with the principles laid out in FM 3-24, and assisted by General Odierno, now promoted to three-star rank and responsible for handling day-to-day operations, he reinvigorated the Third Gulf War through a campaign known as the “surge.” In his confirmation hearings, Petraeus had identified “security of the population,” especially in Baghdad, as his top priority. He promised to establish a “persistent presence” of U.S. troops in even the toughest neighborhoods, even while endorsing Casey’s muted definition of victory: Iraqis able to assume responsibility for their own destiny. “There is no military solution to the problems of Iraq,” Petraeus emphasized. Progress would take time, and “there undoubtedly will be tough days ahead.” Yet “hard is not hopeless.” Escalation meant hope.
A reasonable facsimile of that forecast ensued. Inserting U.S. forces into Baghdad’s most violent precincts did produce tough days, but by the fall of 2007 American casualties had begun to taper off. In September, Petraeus was back in Washington. The tide of violence plaguing Iraq had begun to recede, he reported. Overall civilian casualties had dropped by 45 percent—in Baghdad, by 70 percent. Car bombings and suicide attacks were down. In Anbar Province, Sunnis were turning on Al Qaeda and demonstrating a “newfound willingness to volunteer to serve in the Iraqi army.” Petraeus foresaw U.S. troop levels in Iraq returning to pre-surge levels by the following summer. Yet he warned against a “rapid withdrawal” that could release “strong centrifugal forces,” thereby squandering hard-won gains.
Here was the new narrative. Petraeus was steering Iraq toward the path to recovery. This time progress was real, not illusory. Even so, challenges remained. The war had to continue.
In an immediate sense, ensuring the war’s continuation describes one fundamental purpose of the exercise. By 2007, Americans in growing numbers were sick of Iraq and all that the fighting there entailed. They wanted out and the sooner the better. Yet allowing popular opposition to end the war would jeopardize prerogatives to which members of the national security elite had become accustomed. Since World War II, the president and those enjoying access to the president had determined when, where, and how the United States would fight. With Vietnam the exception that affirmed the rule’s importance, the American people had exercised little say. The importance of fending off any further challenge to these arrangements transcended Iraq itself. This the surge did. It bought time and kept the public from intruding into policy.
The various politicians, pundits, academics, and analysts on whom Petraeus had lavished attention saw something more: The surge represented a feat of historically unprecedented proportions, attributable to the general himself. The historian Victor Davis Hanson declared that Petraeus “will enter the annals of military history among figures like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Patton, and Matthew Ridgeway [
Better at spelling, the journalist Max Boot readily agreed, anointing Petraeus “the Matthew Ridgway of this war, rescuing a failing war effort just as Ridgway rescued the United States in the Korean War.”
Michael O’Hanlon and his Brookings Institution colleagues reached further back into America’s military past. They assessed Petraeus’s surge as “the greatest American military comeback late in a war since Sherman’s march to the sea in 1864.”
Over at the American Enterprise Institute, Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan were not to be outdone. “Great commanders often come in pairs,” they wrote: “Eisenhower and Patton, Grant and Sherman, Napoleon and Davout, Marlborough and Eugene, Caesar and Labienus. Generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno can now be added to the list.”
Making the ultimate leap, another writer spied the hand of the divine at work. “God,” Jeffrey Bell wrote, “has apparently seen fit to give the U.S. Army a great general in this time of need.”
In David Petraeus, God had chosen well.