Petraeus: GOP Man on Horseback?

For months, we heard nothing but a constant refrain: wait for Petraeus! That’s what they told us, Republicans and Democrats alike. Rather than face the ire of their largely antiwar constituents, Congress demurred and waited for the military messiah to show up with his much-anticipated report – even though they all knew what he would say. It gave both parties breathing room, and permitted the Democrats to criticize without taking any actions, while allowing the Republicans to go into a significantly less critical holding pattern, albeit with the promise of a "GOP revolt" to come if Petraeus failed to please.

Now that the messiah has finally arrived, and shored up the President’s Republican base – if only temporarily – it turns out that his portrayal as an above-the-partisan-fray kind of guy belies his enormous political ambition, as revealed by a former Iraqi government official. The London Independent reports:

"The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, expressed long-term interest in running for the US presidency when he was stationed in Baghdad, according to a senior Iraqi official who knew him at that time.

"Sabah Khadim, then a senior adviser at Iraq’s Interior Ministry, says General Petraeus discussed with him his ambition when the general was head of training and recruitment of the Iraqi army in 2004-05. ‘I asked him if he was planning to run in 2008 and he said, ‘No, that would be too soon’,’ Mr Khadim, who now lives in London, said."

President Petraeus – presumably inaugurated after a Democratic interregnum – is auditioning to play the role of the Republicans’ Bonaparte. It is an indication of just how far down that path we have gone that hardly anyone finds this shocking.

With the ascension of what Lew Rockwell trenchantly calls "red-state fascism" as the official ideology of the GOP – with its valorization of all things military married to an aggressive foreign policy – a general at the helm of the ship of state would signal the beginning of a new era in American politics: the age of the Caesars.

The groundwork has already been laid: George W. Bush – with his aggressive aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the other two branches of government – has all but crowned himself Emperor. As this country morphs from a republic into an empire, what better symbol of the new militarism than a military man in the White House? As President, Petraeus would embody the Bushian concept of the "unitary presidency."

Of course, we’ve had generals in the Oval Office before – Eisenhower, Grant, Jackson – but in quite a different context. These were chief executives of the pre-imperial era, when Presidents were still first citizens of a republic, and not uncrowned monarchs: Eisenhower could safely occupy the White House without evoking the spirit of the Little Corporal.

These days, however, fresh from the conquest of Mesopotamia, General Petraeus could make like some Roman general, return in triumph to Washington, and be crowned with laurel leaves, as the Senate rises, and, to a man and woman, cries out: "Hail Caesar!"

Before Petraeus crosses that particular Rubicon, however, there are a few obstacles to be overcome, first and foremost the unlikelyhood that he’ll be returning from Iraq a conquering hero. To begin with, there are the objective circumstances of a collapsing political structure in Iraq, combined with a civil war and the inability of the US to impose a military solution.

Then there is the fact that Petraeus is himself likely to be blamed for much of the incompetence that characterized the occupation. As Patrick Cockburn, author of the Independent piece, points out, at least three major debacles can be laid directly at the General’s doorstep:

"His critics hold him at least partly responsible for three debacles: the capture of Mosul by the insurgents in 2004; the failure to train an effective Iraqi army and the theft of the entire Iraqi arms procurement budget in 2004-05."

The Mosul disaster was the direct result of an early version of the pro-Sunni tilt that is now being hailed as a major "success" in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Petraeus appeared on the media’s radar screen when he arrived in Mosul, where he immediately began pursuing a policy that contradicted the hard anti-Sunni orientation pushed by the Coalition Authority and officials in Washington. He sought to recruit Sunni tribesmen, rather than fighting them, and wound up enlisting a numerous cadre of high-ranking former Ba’athists into the Iraqi police and military apparatus. When he left, his strategy was hailed as a success – until, some months later, the insurgents took Mosul practically without a fight. Cockburn reminds us:

"The 7,000 police recruited by General Petraeus either changed sides or went home. Thirty police stations were captured, 11,000 assault rifles were lost and $41m (£20m) worth of military equipment disappeared. Iraqi army units abandoned their bases."

History will repeat itself, perhaps, in Anbar and Diyala, and yet – for the moment, at least – wannabe-President Petraeus is being touted as a man of vision, ahead of his time, who has what it takes to lead us to "victory" in Iraq.

His next task was to train the nascent Iraqi army – you know, the one that is supposed to "stand up, so America can stand down," as President Bush would have it – and we can see how successful that effort has been. Back in 2004, he was writing in the Washington Post that all was going well:

“I see tangible progress…There are reasons for optimism. Today, approximately 164,000 Iraqi police and soldiers … and an additional 74,000 facility protection forces are performing a wide variety of security missions. Equipment is being delivered. Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being reestablished.”

Now he’s singing pretty much the same song – but why should we believe him? I agree with Hillary Clinton – a first! – who said it all when she remarked that it would require "a willing suspension of disbelief" to take his testimony to Congress at face value. Of course, that phrase is the definition of what is required when one is reading – and enjoying – works of fiction that might be classified as either science fiction or outright fantasy. In the case of the administration’s projections of future success in Iraq, I think we’re dealing with the latter.

As chief of the Security Transition Command, Petraeus oversaw the process by which $1.2 billion in US-supplied weapons was stolen right out from under our noses. This enormous arsenal found its way to the black market, where Sunni insurgents, Shi’ite militias, Western "private" security firms, and common criminals drove up prices to record levels. From Uncle Sam to his Iraqi sock-puppets to the killers of American soldiers and various shady characters: the route of these stolen goods – starting in 2003, when Petraeus took over the arms procurement program – traced the path of our increasingly apparent failure in Iraq. Arms dealers grew rich, the ordinary people of Iraq cowered in their homes, and armed factions began the civil war that rages today.

President Petraeus? Such talk is indicative of just how far from reality the debate over the Iraq war has taken us. And this is key to understanding the reason for our looming defeat: our strategy is based, not on military necessity, but political considerations – and it cannot be otherwise, unless, of course, we achieve the dream of the red-state fascists and become a military dictatorship. In which case, we’d have a Supreme Leader at the helm, with the power to not only oversee strategy and tactics, but also to commandeer the resources required to carry them out, without benefit of congressional interference. Under any regime, of course, some degree of popular support for its policies is required, but an American Caesar would have less trouble on this front – forgetting, for the moment, the possibility of an American Brutus …

This is not something the War Party likes to openly broach, although occasionally you’ll find examples of the more rabid dead-enders blurting out the truth, yet it isn’t hard to imagine circumstances that would loosen their inhibitions and let them come out of the closet, so to speak. Another terrorist attack, an alleged internal threat of rebellion, a massive antiwar movement that threatens to provoke civil disorder in the wake of an attack on Iran, Syria, or some other target – draw up your own scenario, and you’ll find that you don’t need to depend on a willing suspension of disbelief.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].