Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Cult of Petraeus Personality

Secretary of State Robert Gates seemed sober and subdued on Meet the Press last Sunday. He was candid about the negative effect of Iraq's Parliament taking August off while American troops continue to fight in support of it, and of the Sunni ministers who resigned from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet last Wednesday.

Gates kept things matter-of-fact as he admitted that a troop drawdown might take place by the end of this year, and he even managed to deftly deflect the issue of one of his subordinates accusing Hillary Clinton of assisting enemy propaganda efforts by allowing as how a lot of people are "on edge."

Gates did, however, say a thing or two that set off my silent alarm. He's starting to echo a meme that places the future of our Iraq adventure firmly around the personality of General David H. Petraeus, United States Army.

Champ, Chump or Chimp?

Supporters of Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, hail him as our best and brightest military officer and one who knows how to conduct counter-insurgency warfare. His detractors seem of the opinion that the thing Petraeus knows how to do best is make himself look good.

While some praise Petraeus for his administration of Mosul and Ninevah after major hostilities ceased, others blame him for allowing the insurgency to establish itself in those areas. His tenure as the officer in charge of training Iraqi troops and police clearly did not go well, despite his own claims in a 2004 Washington Post article titled "Battling for Iraq" that praised the progress being made by Iraqi security forces. Of the article, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote "General Petraeus, without saying anything falsifiable, conveyed the totally misleading impression, highly convenient for his political masters, that victory was just around the corner."

As the U.S. four-star in charge of Iraq, Petraeus has shown a definite penchant for public relations, having staged a record setting reenlistment ceremony, a congressional shopping spree through an outdoor market in Baghdad, and treating journalists to an aerial tour of the city's soccer games. Pentagon correspondent Thomas E. Ricks, a huge Petraeus fan, refers to the general as a "force of nature," and often cites Petraeus's fondness for challenging soldiers half his age to one-arm pushup contests. Like Ricks, I'm impressed that a general in his mid-fifties can outdo fit men half his age in tests of physical fitness, but all the one-arm pushups in the world won't fix what's broken in Iraq.

It's not my purpose to run Petraeus down for the fun of doing so. Let's face it, nobody makes it to level he has reached in the military without rubbing people the wrong way or without a certain flair for flash and self promotion. My point is that General Petraeus may be able to walk on his hands, but he can't walk on water (as Mr. Bush seems to want us to think).

As Ricks noted in July, "Almost every time President Bush has defended his new strategy in Iraq this year, he has invoked the name of the top commander, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus." Mr. Bush calls Petraeus his "main man," and managed to fend off a revolt of congressional Republicans over the war by telling them "to wait to see what David has to say. I trust David Petraeus, his judgment."

That Mr. Bush trusts Petraeus's judgment should give us pause. Mr. Bush has an established track record of trusting the judgment of people who tell him what he wants to hear. This is not to imply that Petraeus is a spineless yes man. He probably does believe in the escalation strategy and in his own ability to pull it off. But beliefs and reality aren't always the same things. Believing to the depths of one's soul that the moon is made of green cheese doesn't make it so.

And so it is with our situation in Iraq. We've listened to four and a half years of "last throes" and "dead enders" and of criticism of the war as "Henny Penny sky is falling" talk from the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (who could both be described as "forces of nature" themselves).

Nobody in their right mind or otherwise expects that come mid-September, General Petraeus will tell Congress, "Sorry folks, I gave this surge thing my best shot, but it's time to yank the rug out from under this thing." No, Petraeus will walk in loaded with a full magazine of talking points about "signs of success" and the need for the legislature to give him more time to "get the job done."

The administration and its liegemen will point to Petraeus's testimony as "proof" that Congress needs to continue funding and supporting Mr. Bush's "Son of Stay the Course" strategy. They'll harangue the Democrats with the argument that says, "Hey, you confirmed him, now you have to do whatever he tells you to," and given what we've seen since January, the Democrats are likely to cave in.

The shame is that the Democrats will likely go wobbly because they can't understand or explain that decisions of whether or not to persist in conducting a war are not matters of strategy, they're matters of foreign policy, and in the United States, generals are not supposed to dictate policy, foreign, domestic or otherwise. And despite what Bush supporters would have you believe, the Constitution does not make foreign policy the exclusive privilege of the executive branch. It does quite the opposite.

Article II makes the president commander in chief of the military and allows him to receive foreign ambassadors and ministers. He appoints U.S. ambassadors to other nations, but they must be consented to by the Senate, as do "other officers of the United States" like David Petraeus. A president can make treaties, but those treaties must be approved by two-thirds supermajority of the Senate.

Article I gives the legislature authority, among other things, to punish "offenses against the law of nations," to declare war, to issue letters of marque and reprisal, to provide and regulate the military, and to call out the militia to repel invasions.

Nowhere does the Constitution dictate or allow Congress to cede its authority in matters of war and peace to the president's "main man." I hope the Democrats keep that in mind come the Ides of September.


  1. The Dems haven't figured out the last election; they are hardly in a place to understand the next one. It's gonna be a long, meaningless campaign.

  2. Actually, I think Pelosi and company are very fearful of pulling a "Gingrich." When Gingrich engaged in brinkmanship with Clinton over the budget, it turned out to be the beginning of the end of his career. The party leadership apparently don't think they have enough political capital on hand to force the issue. This may also be a side-effect of the long absense of the Democrats from Congressional leadership.

  3. OB,

    I don't think they have either. And the last time they had a majority, there wasn't a war needing extraction from.


    Yeah, fearful of pulling a Gingrich might be a perfect way to put it.

    I'm just really not happy that it appears we're about to have a four-star general dictate policy to Congerss.


  4. linda2:28 AM

    Agree with your 'main man' accessment. Hope that you caught Gen. W. Clark (Ret.) on Olbermann (Countdown: Weapons missing in action video). Very damning discussion of Petreaus in charge and his 'part' in the missing weapons 'scandal'.

  5. A couple of thoughts:

    1) Bush facnies himself as a modern day Truman. Petreaus may be his version of McArthur (Without all the ego involved). Problem is that since Bush will not be in office after 2009 he's not in a position to offer him a real payoff....

    2) Reid and Pelosi badly misjudged what they were in DC to do and the strength of the hand they were dealt. They played like they had 4 queens when in reality they had a mid grade hand and needed to bluff skillfully. They wasted whatever chips they had, upping the ante in the early betting rounds and got their ass handed to them when they got called. I still believe that rather than attack the troop presence-discrediting Bush and forcing retrenchment of presidential power would have been the smarter play.

    Now Reid can do NOTHING. They and the nation are committed to riding along in Iraq till 2009. Problem is-the Iraqi government will STILL be just as useless then as it is now. However everyone from Bush down has basically already agreed to give the Iraqis a pass on doing anything responsible. The Iraqis know that.

  6. Cmdr. Huber:

    To what degree do you believe that the flaccid spines in the Congressional leadership are due to fear of the consequences of leaving Iraq, and that the wingnut demagogues will then blame them for a mistake akin to that which made Pandora famous?

    You may recall that after world war 1, Germany's defeated and disgraced militarists let Germany's sane liberals reach a peace, and then promptly began to claim that they'd been stabbed in the back, while on the brink of winning.

    I suspect that this is the case which is one reason why I am pleased by Dr. Paul's good fortune.

  7. SC,

    I think much of your analysis is spot on. Also keep in mind that all those seats the Dems picked up can go right back to the Republicans if the Dems appear to have blown the war.


  8. Just to let you know...

    I got out of the Navy after 6 years as an EW1 and my son is now and AO. I wish I'd served with you, but like to think that many of the officers I did serve with thought much as you do. But I do remember one skipper who was more like Petraeus.

    I hope my son serves with men that trained or were otherwise influenced by you.


  9. Zedaker,

    Thanks. That's a lovely sentiment, and I appreciate you stopping by and expressing it. Means a lot to me.



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