Thinking About Petraeus

I don’t know him personally, and there have always been elements of his personality and his performance that did not enthuse me. In the early days of Iraq, I believe that he overstated the success of his mission to train local police forces in Mosul. And as Angleton mentions in our recent conversation, General Petraeus always paid a great deal of attention to his public image. I was always told that he went around with several public affairs officers who could explain to inquiring journalists what was “really” going on.


In this, as in so many other ways, I’m hopelessly oldmannish. I want my generals to spend their time defeating our enemies and protecting our guys, not polishing their images, and decidedly not spending many hours on email.

I take a dim view of adultery, too, in case you were wondering. Yes, I know it’s very popular, I know it’s in our DNA. I’ve read the Old Testament. And yes, I know “man is more inclined to do evil than to do good,” Machiavelli’s terse summary of the human condition. But I also know that virtue is possible, and I want my leaders to be virtuous. I think that winning is the most important thing, and if you win you don’t need to brainwash the observers. The victory speaks for itself.

Which brings us to the whole discussion of the “surge.” I have always said that the surge was not a strategic breakthrough, but rather the application of tried-and-true principles regarding “revolutionary wars.” According to those principles, the outcome of such wars is determined by the people, that is to say, the local population. They provide both the information and the critical mass to one side or the other, thereby determining who wins and who loses. Their dilemma is that they do not wish to be involved in the conflict at all. Preferring to remain neutral, they abstain as long as possible and only throw their weight at the very last possible moment to what they believe to be the winning side. In Iraq, that moment came first in Anbar Province, where the locals became convinced that the Marines could not be defeated and that the Marines were not going away.


And no, contrary to what some are saying, Anbar was not won by bribes. It was bullets. The money came afterwards.

Notice, by the way, that just a year before the Marines won in Anbar, the head of Marine Intelligence in the province glumly assessed that they had lost, and that they could not win. Which reinforces another of my core beliefs: you never know, life is full of surprises, and the only thing to do is keep fighting.

Petraeus fought, and he fought well enough to win. It was a very big deal. Under his command, we smashed the jihadis in Iraq, dealt a devastating blow to al Qaida and its Iranian terror masters, and gave Iraq a window of opportunity. By Lee Smith’s account — which matches my own — Petraeus was one of the few national leaders to recognize the big role Iran played in the regional war, and he actually took steps to challenge them. He was in a very tiny group of leaders — we’re talking about the Bush administration, remember — who recognized Iran’s role, and he saw further evidence when he went to CENTCOM, and thence to Afghanistan, where he replaced General McChrystal, who was also pretty clear-eyed about the Iranian threat.

He was certainly very ambitious (duh!) and that, combined with a generous assessment of his own leadership abilities, explains the real mystery about his career: why did he accept the job at CIA? With the exception of George Herbert Walker Bush (aka Bush the Elder), no director of the agency has ever gone on to greater power or glory, and Bush the Elder tagged along behind Ronald Reagan. There was precious little chance that Obama would offer his coat tails — if there are such — to the general. Obama probably worried at least a little bit about Petraeus entering politics on the GOP side as a presidential candidate, and figured it was smart to lock him up in Langley. But why did Petraeus go for it?


As I said, Petraeus may actually have believed he could turn the place around, and he certainly knew that we need a fabulous intelligence agency if we’re going to prevail in a world at war. That gives us two components of his decision: ego and patriotism. QED?

Which leaves the Broadwell affair, and maybe more. That such a man would fall for such a woman is not surprising. If it is true that he desperately pursued her after the tryst ended, that suggests he was well and truly besotted with her. And if it turns out, as Angleton inevitably suspects, that foreign intelligence agencies were at work inside the network of pretty women, we’ve got a textbook espionage file.  However that turns out, he was a perfect target, and the FBI seems to me quite justified in looking long and hard at the activities of the pretty women and their many friends in Tampa and Washington.

Add in Benghazi, an administration that has little respect for truth and seems altogether too willing to toss generals, ambassadors, and soldiers under its bus, and you’ve got the makings of a hell of a story, whose outlines are only just beginning to be visible.


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