First, allow a disclaimer: Along with Gens. James Mattis and Ray Odierno, I consider Gen. David Petraeus to be our finest military leader today — indeed, amongst the best in American history. His implementation of the surge strategy in Iraq, a counterinsurgency doctrine he literally authored, was one of the greatest military triumphs in U.S. history and constituted one of the most dramatic turnarounds in the history of warfare. That is not an overstatement. After almost four years of a seemingly endless insurgency, Gen. Petraeus saved the war effort in Iraq; needless to say, he has earned his military pension when he retires — including the gratitude of all Americans and all Iraqis.
Like most Americans, I take what Petraeus says very seriously. Now that he is in charge of CENTCOM, his overall responsibilities include all of the Middle East. At 8:00 a.m., Petraeus might be on the phone with a Saudi prince to talk about back-channel financing of al-Qaeda; at 9:00 a.m., he might be speaking with a Pakistani diplomat to talk about economic development; at 10:00 a.m., he might be on the phone with an Afghan warlord to talk about security; at 11:00 a.m., he might speak with Gen. Odierno or Prime Minister Maliki about Iraq. He is ultimately responsible for the Iraqi and Afghan wars and would be in charge of a hypothetical confrontation with Iran. In essence, Petraeus is the decisive ambassador to the entire region.
Petraeus is a respected man, whose opinions are highly valued and held in high esteem — which makes his recent comment about the terrorist group Hezbollah all the more surprising. Just prior to the Lebanese elections — elections that Hezbollah lost, thank goodness — Gen. Petraeus spoke with the Arabic-language al-Hayat newspaper, published by the Lebanese Daily Star, and blamed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the existence of Hezbollah. “Hezbollah’s justifications for existence will become void,” Petraeus said, “if the Palestinian cause is resolved.”
It is unclear what Petraeus meant by this statement. While he has earned the benefit of the doubt, if Petraeus truly meant what he apparently said, this is a highly discouraging revelation. The idea that the Palestinian “plight” is Hezbollah’s casus belli is so far from the truth, and so detached from reality, it is hard to believe Petraeus actually thinks this. Perhaps there was a mistranslation? Perhaps Petraeus was making shrewd statements for domestic Lebanese consumption — attempting to undermine Hezbollah by painting them as more concerned for Palestinians than the Lebanese people, just ahead of Lebanon’s elections? All of this is possible.
But what if these explanations aren’t the case? What if Gen. Petraeus literally believes the alleviation of the Palestinian grievance is the key to regional counterterrorism?
Just because Gen. Petraeus is a brilliant military mastermind does not automatically make his views on Middle Eastern geopolitics beyond question. Hezbollah is an Iranian-backed, Iranian-financed, Iranian-armed jihadist organization that was created by the Islamic Republic in the early 1980s and sent to Lebanon to kill and intimidate those in Lebanon who oppose theocracy and fascism. Hezbollah terrorists have killed more Americans than any other terrorist group in the world, save al-Qaeda one Tuesday morning eight years ago. They have conducted attacks on innocents and civilian targets in the Middle East, in Latin America, in Asia; they have bases all over the world. They answer to the supreme leader of Iran and constitute the elite of the elite of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
To suggest Hezbollah’s primary motivations are minimalist and nationalist — indeed, not even their nation — is baloney. The rationale for Hezbollah’s existence is to overtake and ransack Lebanon and make it a satrapy state for Iran, to Islamize secular Lebanese polity, to kill Westerners wherever and whenever possible, and, more significantly, to strive for the end of Israel’s existence. To say Hezbollah’s “justifications” would run dry, should a non-related event occur, operates from the false premise that Hezbollah feels compelled to offer justifications for their actions in the first place. They don’t.
Analogously, this would be like Gen. Eisenhower or Gen. Patton making the case that the existence of the Waffen-SS would effectively end the moment the British ended their colonialism of India — completely unrelated, unproven, untrue, and inconsequential even if true.
You can tell a lot about a person’s views (and values) by the way he answers the following question: “Would a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict solve the problems of the Middle East, or would solving the problems of the broader Middle East — namely, Iran — one day bring about a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”
The James Baker and Brent Scowcroft crowd insist the former: that by addressing Palestine’s small real estate quandaries on the West Bank, the United States could solve the transcendent geopolitical, military, ideological, and theological problems of a nuclearized Iran, a radicalized Pakistan, a Hezbollahized Lebanon, an insurrectionized Iraq, and rabid Wahhabi-Salafist indoctrination across the Islamic world. This is, of course, total fantasy and totally backwards.
Before Republicans rush to nominate David Petraeus as their presidential candidate in 2012 or 2016, we should first find out if Petraeus agrees with this erroneous and perilous view of the Middle East.