Who Owns General Petraeus?

Anyone who has ever served in the military would confirm that to become a general in the armed forces of the United States requires highly developed political skills.  One must be politically astute to guide large military forces while at the same time answering to largely ignorant constituencies in Congress, the White House, and the media.  Many generals tire of the exercise after a certain point and retire to well paid sinecures on the boards of defense contractors.  Others stage their own forms of rebellion, speaking the truth and walking the plank as a reward.  Admiral William Fallon insisted in 2008 that there would be no war with Iran on his watch.  He was forced to retire soon after.  More recently, General Stanley McChrystal voiced his displeasure with the White House’s management of the Afghan war to a journalist and likewise was forced into early retirement.

Some generals, however, like the give and take of politics and harbor their own ambitions to hold high office.  General Douglas MacArthur challenged President Harry Truman and was spoken of as a possible Republican candidate while General Dwight D. Eisenhower rode his own military fame to the presidency in 1952 and 1956. It is widely believed in the media that the current top general David Petraeus harbors similar ambitions.  Eisenhower won the election virtually without campaigning, but Petraeus understands that he must satisfy some key constituencies before he throws his hat in the ring. 

The tradition that general officers should provide disinterested advice to policymakers based on their best judgments and the most current available intelligence has long since passed.  Modern generals first test the wind before they offer an opinion and then carefully tailor their comments to support the prevailing policy.  Petraeus, who is regarded as an intellectual and even somewhat of an iconoclast, is no different.  His counterinsurgency strategy, far from a new development, is a replay of similar thinking during the Vietnam war and a repudiation of the Powell Doctrine, which asserted that wars should be in the national interest, with attainable objectives, fought using overwhelming force, and incorporating a clear exit strategy.  In short, Petraeus is the architect of the counterinsurgency long war combined with nation building strategy that has been embraced by both Presidents Bush and Obama.

Petraeus’ apparent close relationship with the neoconservatives and the Israel Lobby is a matter of concern, particularly if he does aspire to be president.  Some have plausibly identified him as the neocon candidate for 2012 though others note appreciatively that he initiated a long overdue national debate with his Senate testimony in March 2010, observing as he did that the failure to achieve peace in Israel-Palestine has endangered United States soldiers in the region.  To be sure, Petraeus quickly did damage control for the statement in the Senate, helping in the orchestration of an article that described him as a friend to Israel who did not view the conflict with the Palestinians as a matter of great concern.  In May 2010 Petraeus received the Irving Kristol award from the American Enterprise Institute, indicating clearly that the Israel Lobby and the neocon establishment regard him as a favorite son.

Petraeus’ personal link to the neocons is through Max Boot and the two Kagans, Kimberly and Fred.  All three have advised the general and have been cheerleaders for his "surge" policies.  Kimberly Kagan has written a book featuring Petraeus entitled The Surge: A Military History.  A series of emails to Boot that appears to have been inadvertently revealed to Israel Lobby critic James Morris suggests that Petraeus’ ambitions led him to seek expert advice on how to mend fences with the Jewish community after his Senate testimony faux pas.  He asked Boot "Does it help if folks know that I hosted Elie Wiesel and his wife at our quarters last Sun night?  And that I will be the speaker at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in mid-Apr at the Capitol Dome…," exceptional pandering by a four star general and also a comment that suggests a certain naïveté on the subject.  Petraeus even weasel worded about his actual testimony before the Senate, telling Boot "As you know I didn’t say that.  It’s in a written submission for the record…" He also collaborated with Boot on the preparation of an article entitled "A Lie:  David Petraeus, Anti-Israel" that appeared on March 18, 2010, appropriately enough, in Commentary magazine, a publication founded by the American Jewish Committee. 

But maybe the neocons should think twice about their captive general. Many who harbor political ambitions rightly fear the power of the Israel Lobby, but fear is a far remove from affection.  Many Congressmen held hostage by the Lobby resent it and long for the time when they would be able to support genuine American interests relating to the Middle East.  Petraeus surely understands that no one can get nominated by a major party to run for president of the United States if the Israel Lobby and its media supporters say no.  If he wants to get elected, he has to watch what he says and bend his knee, but he might not like it just as President Barack Obama clearly did not enjoy the battering he took from the Lobby in the fight for the Democratic nomination.  Israel and its friends just might wind up selecting a strong leader with some very definite views that ultimately could lead to Washington distancing itself from Israel in a very decisive fashion.  As a war hero with no particular political baggage, he would be a formidable opponent for any foreign Lobby, including that of Israel.  And as a former general who has led troops in the field, he might become a president who actually believes the needless waste of his soldiers is unacceptable. 

Petraeus’ report to the Senate Armed Services Committee was groundbreaking, a fact that was recognized at the time.  It came after a team of staff officers conducted a series of off-the-record meetings with Arab allies in the Middle East in December 2009.  All America’s friends emphasized that it had become increasingly difficult to generate popular support for US policies in light of the Israeli repression of the Palestinians.  The responses were so alarming that Petraeus arranged a briefing for Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a month later.  Mullen also was shocked by the depth of the antipathy towards the United States caused by Israeli policies and the report to the Senate was the result. 

It is important to go back to the original statement to the Senate that started the furor about Petraeus’ views.  Do not for a second think that the assessment of Israel and Palestine was something that made it into the 56 page Central Command posture statement by accident or because Petraeus did not notice it.  The report was prepared by Petraeus’ staff and it is absolutely certain that he read every line of it and endorsed it before he appeared before the Senate committee.  The report’s full title is "Statement of General David H. Petraeus, US Army Commander, US Central Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Posture of US Central Command, 16 Mar 2010." This is what it says:

    "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests… Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large scale armed confrontations.  The conflict foments anti-American sentiments, due to perception of US favoritism for Israel.  Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the region and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.  Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support."

Though carefully expressed, there is no ambiguity to the statement and no doubt that it represents General Petraeus’ thinking.  It means what it says, basically that Israel’s behavior weakens Arab regimes friendly to the US, makes it impossible to develop popular support for Washington’s programs, and strengthens terrorism.  The result is that American soldiers and diplomats in the Middle East and Central Asia are threatened by irresponsible and unsustainable Israeli policies. 

This means that the genie is out of the bottle no matter what Max Boot does to try to coax it back in or spin it into meaninglessness.  It is also important to bear in mind that the Petraeus’ statement was not an isolated incident, a sign of what might amount to a new awareness in Washington that Israel represents a strategic liability.  In March, Joe Biden reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "This is starting to get dangerous for us.  What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops…"  And Admiral Mike Mullen has warned his counterpart General Gabi Ashkenazi that Israeli actions are hurting the US posture throughout the Mideast region.

So who owns General Petraeus?  At this point, maybe no one.  If he does have political ambitions he is certainly smart enough to know that crossing the neocons and the Lobby would be suicidal as he would be subjected to a devastating media assault.  But he is a smart man who understands that the relationship with Israel is a liability.  If he were to become president would his better angel come to the fore?  We can only hope.

Author: Philip Giraldi

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is a contributing editor to The American Conservative and executive director of the Council for the National Interest.